Autonomous shipping gets a mixed press. While some sectors of the industry believe smart technology will transform their business, many shipping companies are reluctant to invest in unproven - and risky - technology. We explain the opportunities and risks – and how Bureau Veritas is working to help clients transition to smarter shipping.
Do autonomous ships already exist? The answer is yes – and no. Some small autonomous military ships and survey vessels are already in use. But large merchant ships have yet to move beyond a basic level of autonomy, citing high costs and concerns about cyber and operational risk as obstacles to adoption. Moreover, autonomous does not necessarily imply unmanned.
Ship autonomy levels are categorized on a scale (see diagram): as the level of autonomy increases, so the need to have crew onboard is reduced. Today’s cyber-enabled commercial ships are typically at level 1.
This is why any discussion of autonomous shipping needs a dose of realism: while smaller vessels such as OSVs may reach levels 2-3 in the next few years, large merchant vessels are realistically more likely to reach level 1 – and this is already a major step compared to where they are now.
But we would argue strongly that the number one benefit of increasing ship autonomy is safety. If we look at the automotive industry, introduction of electronic driver-assist systems such as lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection systems have cut road accidents and fatalities (source: IHCC ). In shipping, more than 75 percent of accidents on ships are caused by human error. The use of sensors to collect data, and systems to process it and provide operational guidance reduces the likelihood of accidents, damage and polluting spills. Aside from that, unmanned operations reduce the risk of exposing crew to hazardous situations.
Autonomous ships need to achieve a safety level equivalent to conventional ships. This is hard to define as much of what the industry defines as “safe” is built on historic knowledge and lessons learned from accidents.
At a basic level, autonomous ships must comply with relevant regulations (i.e. SOLAS, MARPOL, COLREG and STCW). Operational risks for autonomous ships are generally similar to conventional ships, but with risk transferred from crew to sensors and cyber-physical systems. Autonomous ships must be able to achieve navigate without colliding with other vessels, taking into account traffic and unexpected situations. They must be able to maneuver and remain stable, and withstand unauthorized physical or virtual trespassing. Reducing or removing crew puts increased demands on system reliability and security. It also has implications for cargo management in terms of cargo securing and monitoring.
Innovation projects such as the JIP, or Bureau Veritas’ smart shipping partnership with Bourbon are interesting because they show the potential for autonomous shipping. The issue for most owners remains cost: until there is a clear efficiency benefit that outweighs initial investment, most will be reticent to commit. Nevertheless, as with other new technologies, “not now” does not mean “never”. And if autonomous shipping is some way off, smart shipping is here to stay.