Self-Driving Ships are the Latest Push Towards Automation

Safety concerns and efficiency are fueling design of autonomous marine vessels.

Autonomous marine vessel rendering. (Image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.)

Autonomous marine vessel rendering. (Image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.)

In January, ClassNK—an organization that works towards making sea travel safer—released a report outlining guidelines for design, development and operation of automated ships. Technological progress such as artificial intelligence and IoT have accelerated the development of automation in various sectors, most notably in manufacturing and transportation. Much attention has been paid to the development of self-driving cars as a means to increase roadway safety, cut down on traffic congestion and give people more free time during commutes.

“In the field of ships, research and development of technology related to maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) has been actively carried out in Japan and overseas with the aim of improving safety by preventing human error and improving working conditions by reducing the work load on crew members,” the ClassNK report stated.

According to data from The Japan Ship Owners’ Mutual Protection & Indemnity Association Loss Prevention and Ship Inspection Department, human error was to blame for 84 percent of ship and harbor accidents where the cause could be investigated between 2008 and 2016. During that same period there were 2,178 P&I insurance accidents involving coastal vessels, with 59 percent involving harbor and fishery accidents. Cargo damage accidents and incidents with crew casualties accounted for 80 percent.

Autonomous ship technology is still very much in the R&D phase and the report anticipated that current demonstration projects could be ready for deployment by 2025. There are two main focus areas in the design process. One is to create a marine vessel that functions with as few human crew members as possible for short navigation routes. The second goal is to automate at least a portion of onboard tasks and provide remote support for other functions, thereby making things easier for crew members. Whereas automation allows the ship or certain functions on the ship to be run by software, remote operation means a human would still be running the ship, likely from an onshore location.

“The development of technology related to MASS along the former direction for coastal vessels and the latter for ocean going merchant vessels is expected to progress gradually,” the report stated.

In May, ClassNK conditionally approved a joint project by shipping companies NYK Line and MTI that are currently working on a conceptual design for an autonomous ship. Rolls-Royce is another company that’s spearheading the development of autonomous ships. “Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations,” said Mikael Makinen, President Rolls-Royce Marine. The company stated in its own report on the topic that sensor technology needed to make autonomous ships work already exists alongside the decision-making algorithms that work in conjunction with the sensors to guide navigation. The challenge is to effectively combine the two technologies, the report stated.

In addition to safety and efficiency, ongoing complications from the COVID-19 pandemic will also likely spur the development and deployment of autonomous marine vessels. Ships with large crews living in close quarters are ideal conditions for virus spread as was demonstrated by the extent of COVID-19 contagion on cruise ships earlier this year. Despite the risk, the need for the transport of goods has not waned despite the temporary shutdown of major economies. The demand for some goods such as personal protective equipment, cleaning and sanitation supplies, supplies for the home, consumer technology devices and medical equipment has increased. These changes bode well for the furthering of autonomous ships, which could aid the efficiency of the global supply chain while reducing the risk of infectious disease spread on vessels.