Autonomous shipping research projects

The autonomous shipping research projects reshaping society 

Jul. 9 2019 - 4 min

Enter the world of cutting-edge cyber technology, where three new autonomous shipping projects are broadening the horizons of smart shipping.

This year, a number of exciting R&D projects are pushing the boundaries of autonomous vessels, tackling challenges in and beyond the shipping industry. Three major projects are blazing new trails for low-manned and unmanned vessels, leaving opportunity in their wake.  

Using automated vessels to optimize existing infrastructure

Inland navigation infrastructure is frequently overlooked in favor of overland transport. But when used optimally, inland waterways are more economical and environmentally friendly than cars, trucks and trains(1)  – an advantage the EU’s Horizon 2020 program is keen to exploit.   

The €8 million NOVIMAR project, which will run from 2017-2021, is a cutting-edge R&D project that aims to create a completely new waterborne transport concept: vessel platooning. The objective is to have a vessel train led by a manned vessel, followed by a series of digitally-connected, low-manned or unmanned vessels. Alongside several marine industry partners, Bureau Veritas is providing cyber expertise for the project, producing a cyber safety and security risk analysis.  

The implications of this technology for inland navigation are profound: NOVIMAR’s goal is to optimize waterborne transportation so that it can make full use of short-sea, sea-river and inland waterways. By reducing operational costs and creating economies of scale, autonomous technology will enable ships to make better use of existing infrastructure in inland navigation, expanding the waterborne transport chain into the urban environment. 

Taking to the water to reduce carbon emissions

Climate change remains a major concern for the maritime industry, and researchers have begun to investigate cyber technology’s role in procuring greener shipping alternatives.

A new autonomous shipping project spearheaded by the EU is doing just that. Beginning in 2019, the project aims to help ship operators and owners sailing in European waters improve economies of scale for their investments in terms of number and usability of vessels. By boosting maritime transportation as a greener transport method, the EU is looking to reduce CO2 production and help curtail the current climate crisis.

A number of Europe’s largest maritime leaders and independent research organizations are teaming up to develop and demonstrate two fully autonomous vessels capable of operating in a realistic environment. Bureau Veritas is creating a regulatory framework for autonomous ships and cyber systems for the project, based on BV NI 641 and International Maritime Organization developments.  

Testing the possibilities for man-to-machine transfers

Time is a precious commodity, and one of the shipping world’s biggest questions is how to optimize vessel operations, such that crew members can focus on other tasks.

Since 2017, a Dutch R&D JIP has been trying to answer that question, by working on a detailed study of man-to-machine task transfer. In March 2019, it conducted 11 full-scale nautical scenario trials in the North Sea, with the help of 17 consortium partners, including Bureau Veritas. 

During trials, a vessel with an autonomous navigation system connected to autopilot and a machinery control system performed evasive maneuvers safely, demonstrating an autonomous decision-making process. This showed that some tasks can successfully be transferred from people to machines and offered valuable input for future developments in autonomous shipping.