Unmanned Ships, Future & Challenges

As AI and machine learning is evolving, speculations regarding autonomous and unmanned ships to replace the current fleet is increasing. According to IMO in the frame of a regulatory scoping exercise from 2018 [12,15], there are four degrees of autonomous ships.

  • Degree One, ships with automated processes and decision support.
  • Degree Two, ships which are remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board.
  • Degree Three, ships which remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board.
  • Degree Four, fully autonomous ships.

We will observe a steady transition from manned ships (degree Zero) to fully autonomous ships (degree Four) with the successive advancement of AI, machine learning algorithms, and robotics. Unmanned ships will bring a rapid change in the shipping industry in aspects of cost-cutting, safety, and sustainability. It will definitely reduce the crew cost but at what cost? This is the question.
Studies state that removal of crew accommodation from ships can reduce 6% of fuel cost and 5% of construction costs. The unmanned ships will reduce the chance of accidents caused by human error. Approximately 90% of the total shipping accidents are caused by human negligence. The cases of hostage seafarers by pirates can also be avoided though there is a risk of cyber-attack. In 2011 alone, pirate activity in the Arabian sea region costed the maritime industry between $7 billion.
The ship manufacturing companies are trying hard to make unmanned ships a seagoing reality and not just an experimental craft. Shone, an automation firm based out of San Francisco has made it their mission to make autonomous vessels. They are working on autonomous technologies for container ships and have developed technology that identifies the obstacle around it with the help of 360° camera & sensors, which help to predict & avoid collisions. Also, Kongsberg in collaboration with Yara to launch their first autonomous ship with zero-emission supported by battery for power supply in late 2021.

Yara Birkeland Unmanned shio

Hurdles to Face

Transportation through unmanned ships is quite tough in comparison to the other means of transportation like car, truck, airplane, etc. due to its bigger size and long voyages. It can be expected that the unmanned ship would reduce accidents as there would not be any room for human error. The human error refers to the decision or the casualties followed by a human being. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to deal with fire incidents when there is no crew on board. It seems strange that who else will be responsible for such incidents whether shipowner, software developer, or the respective company. Apart from this, there is another major problem that the regulatory framework of IMO has to reboot its whole system and set up a new regulatory framework as there is a chance of cyber-attack. It may cause a huge loss as the pirates can intervene in the system and change the path of the ship to their desired location.

Effect on Employment

Every outcome has its pros and cons, fixing one problem may arise another. We have to admit that unmanned ships are going to suck jobs from the seafarers, though it creates some new opportunities in the shipping industry. According to the reports, after a certain period of time, autonomous shipping will reduce the global need for seafarers to 30k to 50k, considering the current global tonnage shipped. At the same time, it will increase the demand for highly skilled remote-operators onshore, and pilots to operate high-tech ships. Experienced seafarers may work in developing decision making and problem-solving algorithms.

According to the Canadian businessman Kevin O’ Leary, nobody has a monopoly on a good idea. It is definite that autonomous ships will take over the industry. The maritime institution has to develop their teaching strategies and educate their trainee according to the development in the industry.

We can conclude that autonomous shipping is not a new concept, it’s a natural evolution that is being possible by technology and motivation at incentives. The airline industry has been able to fly planes without people in the cockpit in the last 20 years and so will the ships in the coming future.

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