All hands on land
The automation of various aspects of the logistics chain has been a topic of interest for many years. A research consortium’s concept for unmanned ships seeks to make significant advances in the level of technology used in the transportation of goods by sea.
Commercial shipping is having difficulty attracting trainees. Sailors are often far away from friends and family for weeks or months on end, and the shipping lines are finding it more and more difficult to find qualified personnel. In connection with the increase in bunker prices, the practice of slow steaming is also becoming ever more attractive. As a result, transit times have been extended, whilst the attendant work procedures take much less time, on account of increased on-board automation processes. Crews thus experience longer phases with less work to be carried out. The potential for saving personnel costs is therefore great.
A new concept
Now a consortium, composed of eight partners, including the Fraunhofer Institut in Hamburg and Marintek, Norway’s research institute for marine technology, is working on a concept for unmanned ships, knows as shipping drones.
The Munin project – which stands for maritime unmanned navigation through intelligence in networks – was launched in autumn 2012, and is scheduled to run for a period of three years. The EU has provided it with EUR 2.9 million in funds. Existing units are set to be equipped with collision-prevention systems, electronic positioning, and satellite communications by the project. Sophisticated technology for detecting and avoiding obstacles is essential in this context.
Furthermore, the ship drones must be equipped with positioning and navigation systems, in order to determine and manage their exact whereabouts, travel speed and course. In addition, it is important to equip the ships’ engines with on-board monitoring systems, so that the ship and the equipment can be constantly surveilled.
Special knowledge required
According to the consortium’s plans, crews stationed on land will monitor a ship’s operating procedures and intervene in emergency situations. Thus a captain could direct an entire fleet from a control centre and specialise in specific dangers as well.
However, these autonomous ships will not to be operated completely without a crew in the future, but only whilst travelling from pilot station to pilot station. The comparatively critical docking and departure procedures from a berth will continue to take place with a crew on board in future. This practice aims to reduce accident and error rates on board to a minimum. The consortium has quoted studies according to which 75% of maritime accidents are attributable to human error. A majority of accidents are said to result from exhaustion or inattentiveness.
Where one area of danger is minimised, however, this case opens a new one. For central control on land, reliable and secure communications connections are an absolute necessity. Guaranteeing them is one story. The risk that autonomous ships could become the target of cyber attacks is another.
Regulations need adapting
In addition, greater autonomy also entails greater uncertainty concerning how an operation is actually carried out. The International Chamber of Shipping has stated that existing regulations would have to be adapted completely to cater for unmanned ships, a process which could take years. Drone ships are thus still many years in the future. Should they come in to use it would certainly represent quite a bombshell for the industry, however.