Industrious entrepreneurs, large corporations and government bodies are beginning to test crewless ships as they look to disrupt the massive shipping market, the report claims.
Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce tested its 1st remotely operated commercial vessel and the US Military began testing on its autonomous “Sea Hunter” warship, according to the report.
While fully automated vessels aren’t currently allowed in international waters, increased interest from companies and governments have prompted the UN to consider changing its policy to allow such boats, according to CBInsights.
This could result in un-manned ships as soon as 2020, CBInsights estimates, as one such autonomous vessel is already expected to be in use within 2 years.
Crewless vessels could alter how ships are made, removing the need for kitchens, housing, bathrooms and other human-necessities and streamlining designs while cutting personnel costs. It would also eliminate a large amount of human error, which EU data estimates accounts for over 60% of shipping accidents, according to the report.
An Autonomous Inevitability
“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade,” Rolls-Royce marine innovation VP Oskar Levander said last year, according to the report.Rolls-Royce is leading the pack, CBInsights says, driven by the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative it announced last year. The company is looking to improve communication and data usage by integrating the “vast networks of systems and sensors” from boats already in use.
The London-based multinational aims to use a small, land-based control center to monitor a fleet of remote-controlled vessels around the world, and is working with Google to develop an “intelligent awareness system” that would include both existing manned vessels and autonomous ships, according to the report.
In June, Rolls-Royce performed a “ghost-ship demo,” showing off the capabilities of its autonomous 28-meter ship at berthing itself, undocking, turning in a complete circle and returning to dock, all via remote control.
While Rolls-Royce may be in the lead, other companies are looking to pick up a stake in the future of autonomous shipping.
Japanese shipping companies Mitsui OSK Lines, Nippon Yusen and a number of others have reportedly inked a deal to develop 250 remote-controlled cargo ships to be launched by 2025, and have received support from the Japanese government, according to CBInsights.
Norwegian tech company Kongsberg is developing what it claims to be the world’s 1st fully electric autonomous container ship, slated to begin sailing in 2020 along the Norwegian shore to delivery fertilizer between three of the country’s ports.
Though less focused on transport, the Dutch company RanMarine has developed and operates automated marine vehicles used to collect waste from waterways including ports and harbors, and Menlo Park, Calif.-based O-Robotics has developed the SeaDrone, a low-cost underwater drone designed for tasks such as inspections, CBInsights reports.
Adjusting Regulation: Changing Rules to Fit Crewless Vessels
Regulatory hurdles could still hold autonomous shipping back, as ships would have to gain approval to cross international waters. But the UN has already begun to discuss the topic, with talks starting in June on opening the waters to unmanned shipping between countries.
The rules will likely require a wealth of negotiation between sovereign entities, CBInsights reports, but some groups have already begun to rethink rules for a future of autonomous marine transportation.
The EU has invested $4 billion into its Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks project, and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has begin testing its diesel-powered Sea Hunter, which is designed to function autonomously for months at a time, according to the report.Investments could be increasing due to the potential benefits of autonomous shipping, according to CBInsights, including improved safety through the removal of human error, reduced cost from diminished personnel, higher energy efficiency, increased capacity and reduced piracy through improved designs that would make it harder for the automated vessels to board and take control of the ships.
Over time, data collected from the smart, sensor-equipped ships could also improve shipping routes, reduce fuel use and adjust to climate fluctuations, according to the report.
Whether or not these benefits will be as significant as they seem is still up in the air, however, as autonomous vessels would require a significant initial investment and improvements in safety and efficacy are purely hypothetical, with real-world gains remaining to be seen.
Concerns such as these are playing into regulatory considerations, CBInsights reports, as current regulations were written entirely for crewed ships and don’t provide absolute guidance on “right of way” for ships, and require human judgement to avoid incidents.
Altering these rules to remove humans from the equation could be difficult, and of major concern to insurers in the industry. Despite the fact that 62% of accidents in shipping are deemed as due to human error, CBInsights estimates that 1.65 million individuals work on international ships currently, and their roles and skills are “not seen as insignificant.”
Some argue that removing these experienced individuals could increase accidents and open the doors to more severe incidents, as there would be no personnel on-hand to intervene, according to the report. Such accidents, as seen with oil tankers in the past, could result in severe environmental disasters as well.
This leaves a number of questions yet to be answered, such as who is responsible for such incidents with autonomous shipping vessels and how will insurers support the shift to autonomous shipping?
A Big Investment for Reduced Costs
While costs are likely to drop significantly through improvements in ship efficiency and reduced personnel, such improvements will require a significant upfront investment.Results from a study from the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services estimated a 3.4% reduction in cost through autonomous shipping, which may not seem like much, but could be a huge boon for massive shipping companies like UPS and Amazon, according to the report.
Companies and governments will have to consider the over 1 million ship-bound jobs at stake as well, CBInsights reports, though it is optimistic that a portion of the job losses would be offset by growth in new areas.
The technology behind autonomous shipping could also create more jobs in other fields, thanks to data collected by the sensor-laden boats. Data collected from such vessels could help support machine learning and artificial intelligence models, with Rolls-Royce and Google already collaborating to make use of such data.
“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations,” Rolls-Royce Marine prez Mikael Makinen said, according to CBInsights.
Much like with autonomous air and ground transportation, it will remain to be seen how much of an impact these potentially industry-altering disruptive technologies have on the world.