Cutting manning levels to an absolute minimum

Bulk carriers could be the first ships to operate in unmanned mode Bulk carriers could be the first ships to operate in unmanned mode

The dream of operating ships with no crew on board has been a long term quest for ship operators and now technology is moving towards a solution, suggests Dag Pike.

Already we have unmanned vessels at sea in the form of drones, small craft that are used for military operations and more recently for survey work. Underwater, unmanned vehicles are almost the norm because of the dramatic increase in costs when you have a human operator. The technology is there and is well developed but for shipping operations worldwide the problems become more complex.

Now the EU is funding the MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Navigation) project which aims to look at the benefits and problems of unmanned ships and point the way forward to developing solutions. This 36-month programme started last year with close to €3 million of funding. It involves both business and academic partners.

The rationale behind this project is two-fold. It is estimated that the majority of accidents at sea are the result of human error, so if you take the human operator out of the equation then in theory the ships should be safer. This of course raises the question of whether technology can take over the role of the human in operating ships safely and this is one of the major areas of study.

The second element is economy. Slow steaming can be a way forward to achieve significant fuel savings with a typical bulk carrier operating at a 30% reduction in speed saving around 50% in fuel. However slow steaming can put a considerable extra strain on the crew because of the longer time at sea and with qualified crews being harder to attract and keep at sea, slow steaming may not prove such an attractive proposition. Then of course there is the cost of the crew - both in wages and in the facilities needed to maintain them on board - which can be a considerable part of both the capital cost of the ship and its operating costs.

So the MUNIN Project is forecasting considerable savings both in costs and in emissions with the operation of unmanned ships. The project is focusing on research into operation of bulk carriers at this stage, because this is the type of ship offering greatest potential benefits to accrue, and where there would be reduced risk in terms of public acceptability in terms of an accident thanks to lower risk of pollution.

The research into unmanned operation is focused on several areas. The onboard navigation requirements would demand a considerable advancement on current systems. Position fixing and route following systems are well advanced with current ECDIS systems coupled to autopilots but duplication and back up systems would be necessary. Back up satellite systems in addition to GPS are coming on stream so reliable position fixing should not pose problems, and it is suggested that when operating in constricted waters there would be a human intervention with a transit crew put on board.

One of the main challenges will be in the detection of other vessels and taking avoiding action as required by the Collision Regs. Current radar systems have impressive detection capability but this can deteriorate in rough sea conditions. There are other detection systems available, such as low light TV and infrared systems. It would appear that the solution might lie in combining the various detection systems into one harmonious whole to ensure that even small craft can be detected in adverse conditions.

Weather routing and safe operation in rough sea conditions throws up another challenge and this could entail introducing stress gauges and other measurements into the requirements. Weather routing is a well established science but relating this to the actual influence of the weather on board the ship without a human assessment may be a challenge.

Current ship operations entail the human operation of items such as the main engine and the auxiliaries as and when required. Advanced control systems will be required for the unmanned ship to allow the speed to be varied according to conditions and machinery such as the generators, steering engine and the windlass to be operated by remote control. This will require advanced monitoring and control systems able to detect impending faults and to find solutions.

For a fully autonomous ship, all of these factors would be under advanced computer control with adequate backups built-in, similar to modern aircraft automation systems. It is likely that in the early stages of development of the unmanned ship that the vessel will be under control from a shore station and this in turn will demand the development of reliable communication links, again with suitable back-up.

If this shore side control remains part of the package then it could remove some of the legal and practical challenges that will have to be overcome with the unmanned ship. The requirements of the Colregs will present one of the biggest challenges and it is hard to see IMO making changes to accommodate the operation of unmanned ships. Whilst the computer programme of the future should be able to cope with making the required alternations in course and speed that may be demanded by the Colregs the requirement to maintain a lookout could be a considerable challenge. Traditionally this has always been interpreted as a human lookout and if the advances in electronic detection materialise then it may be possible for this to be considered to be a viable alternative. The shore controllers could also have video picture of the ship’s surroundings.

Then there is the requirement for ships to go to the aid of others in distress. That could be a challenge but an opt-out may be possible. Next the classification societies have to give the nod of approval which should not be a major hurdle and could act as an outside verification of the technology. Finally there will be the insurers and considering the high proportion of shipping accidents that can be attributed to human error they may well view automation as a very viable alternative.

The MUNIN project visualises that ships would be designed to operate in a variety of modes. There would be an Autonomous Mode where the ship would operate in the unmanned condition with no crew on board but with full monitoring and control from the shore control room. Then there would be an extension of this which would be an Autonomous Problem Solving Mode where what is called ‘unintended events’ are solved by the on board systems.

In addition to these two autonomous modes, a third mode, Remote Operation Mode, would transfer full control to the control room ashore. From this mode it would be possible to put the ship into Fail to Safe Mode where the engines are stopped and the ship is powered down with the anchor lowered to the full extent of the chain so that if the ship drifts into shallow water before help can arrive there is a chance that it will bring itself to anchor.

The final stage is Manned Operation where a running crew has been placed on board and the ship operates as a manned ship. This is envisaged for pilotage waters.

The plans and possibilities are there and MUNIN will help to identify the technology developments required and the protocol that will need to be followed for unmanned ships. In the shorter term it should also help to develop technology that could reduce the work load on contemporary manned ships.

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