Autonomous vessels: upcoming future for shipping?

2022/02/10 at 3:14 PM

Approximately two-thirds of accidents having been analysed by the European Maritime Safety Agency happen due to human errors, which are also responsible for most shipping insurance losses. Are there reliable unmanned technologies to make shipping safer and more efficient?

In late January, MOL together with its two group companies and partners successfully concluded the world’s first sea trial of autonomous ship navigation between two ports. The trial was conducted in Japan as part of the unmanned ship project MEGURI2040 led by The Nippon Foundation. Two ship types were involved, a coastal container ship and a coastal car ferry, to identify the similarities and differences of unmanned operations on the different vessels.

The Mikage container ship used by MOL for autonomous sailing trial, source: Vesseljoin

For autonomous navigation, the ships followed a previously formulated route using the autonomous ship operation control system. Information on other ships and obstacles on the set route was gathered by the autonomous surrounding information integration system. The special support sensor was used for autonomous berthing and unberthing. The mooring was conducted with the help of a flight drone (instead of a crew member throwing the mooring line to a worker on the pier).

On the way to 2035

The vision of autonomous sea navigation has been in the focus for years. In 2016, Rolls-Royce launched its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative (AAWA). “As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionise the landscape of ship design and operation”, said back then Mikael Makinen, head of Rolls-Royce’ maritime division.

The AAWA initiative’s aim was to develop technologies for ships to be able to monitor their own “health”, establish and communicate what’s around and make decisions based on this data. It included lots of tasks including sensor technologies, control algorithms and connectivity. The new knowledge must also be turned out into recommendations to regulators to set standards for remote and unmanned vessel operations.

Autonomous container ships, source: Kongsberg Maritime

Rolls-Royce envisaged then that the first autonomous unmanned ocean-going ship would set sail in 2035. But we are at the beginning of this route. At the end of 2018, the British company demonstrated a fully autonomous ferry in Finland. Faco, FinFerries’ 54-metre-long vessel was equipped with a range of advanced sensors enabling it to build a detailed picture of its surroundings in real-time. It was the world’s first remote and autonomous ferry voyage (with passengers).

Intelligent tugs

Simultaneously, in November 2018, Wärtsilä Corporation completed the test procedures of its autonomous shipping system. In the presence of the Norwegian Maritime Authority, the system was tested on the Norwegian ferry Folgefonn with the full dock-to-dock autonomous operation for the entire route, visiting three ports.

Remote-controlled tug operations provided from a shore command centre in the Port of Singapore, source: ABB

In the next few years, the Finnish corporation expanded the geography of unmanned shipping technologies. In March 2020, Wärtsilä and PSA Marine completed initial sea trials for the IntelliTug project in the Port of Singapore. The trials in one of the busiest ports in the world verified IntelliTug’s capability to avoid obstacles, including virtual and real-life moving vessels. These were Singapore’s first trials for the commercial Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) initiative.

One more project was implemented last summer in the Port of Singapore, where the first trial of the autonomous tugboat took place. ABB, together with Singaporean shipyard Keppel O&M carried out South Asia’s first remote joystick control of a tug. The vessel was operated from a shore command centre. The companies expect the technologies they develop will enable the onboard crew to rest rather than perform routine tasks and to be alert when people are needed for the actual work of the tug.

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