Posted by: cesmiconference | July 9, 2015

Rolls-Royce: unmanned ships could set sail within three years

Photo Credit: Rolls-RoyceRemote-control vessels with no captain or crew on board could be the next step in the evolution of the maritime industry.

According to Oskar Levander, vice president of maritime innovation, engineering and technology at Rolls-Royce, ships piloted from ashore will mean cheaper, safer sea transportation, and could be a reality within three years.

Speaking at the EmTech Singapore conference, Levander said unmanned ships will save on crew wages as well as fuel costs.

Savings of 15 percent could be achieved through the removal of certain parts of the ship, such as the deckhouse and crew quarters, which would also allow for more space to pack cargo on board.

Significant cost savings

While ship owners would be the main beneficiaries of cost savings, Levander believes these high-tech vehicles will also drive down the cost of freight and logistics. “Anyone who is going to transport something will benefit from lower costs,” he said.

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), around 90 percent of world trade is carried out by the shipping industry. In 2010, 8.4 billion tons of goods were transported by sea.

Levander believes much of the technology required to operate crewless ships is already in place, but the biggest barrier will be maritime regulations. “The main challenge will be international regulatory obstacles. The IMO would have to approve it, which could take time.”

In 2024, the IMO will issue an update of the SOLAS convention – the international treaty that governs safety at sea. Levander hopes the new rules will take into consideration unmanned ships.

Trials within three years

Crewless ships are likely, however, to set sail sooner than that. The first foray is expected to be in local waters, and would involve ferries or coastal cargo vessels rather than large container ships.

Levander said Rolls-Royce is in discussions with a number of flag states that would allow them to trial such a vessel in their waters. “We are working in Northern Europe, but there are also other possibilities. As we prove and demonstrate the technology, it will evolve into big ocean-going ships.”

And for Rolls-Royce and its partners, the wind appears to be blowing in the right direction. Since 2012, the European Union has been funding a research project called MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks), which aims to develop a concept for an autonomous ship – something it hails as “a key element for a competitive and sustainable European shipping industry in the future”.

Protecting against piracy

Crewless ships could also be a boon in the fight against piracy, which, according to a report by the World Bank, costs the global economy around US$18 billion a year in increased trade costs. Without potential hostages on board, a ship is not as interesting for pirates, Levander said.

“When the pirates board, you can shut it down and it’s easier to take the ship back. The problem with crewed ships is that it’s hard for the military to intervene.” He noted, however, that high levels of IT security would be required to ensure a ship could not be hijacked remotely.

But despite excitement from ship owners and their customers, the development of unmanned ships is likely to be met with resistance from the estimated 1.2 million seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships.

According to shipping industry consultant Moore Stephens, the crew represents 44 percent of total operating costs for a large container ship. The International Transport Workers’ Federation, a union that represents around 600,000 seafarers, has already voiced its opposition to the development.

Levander, however, claims many sailors would jump at the opportunity to work onshore, operating a ship from an office, rather than spending months at sea.

Automation transforming a range of sectors

Shipping is one of many industries being transformed by the process of automation. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are already used in the fields of defence, mining and offshore oil and gas, relieving humans from some of the most dangerous tasks.

The use of autonomous trucks is currently underway in Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are using the technology to haul iron ore.

Rio Tinto, the largest owner and operator of autonomous trucks in the world, currently has 53 autonomous trucks operating across its mine sites. They respond to GPS directions to deliver loads 24 hours a day and are supervised by remote operators.

Rio Tinto also expects to launch the world’s first fully autonomous heavy-haul, long-distance railway system in 2015. The US$518 million investment in the Pilbara rail network is designed to improve productivity and safety.

Meanwhile, in the logistics sector, e-commerce giant Amazon last year tested delivery drones – small, remotely operated aircraft that would be used to drop parcels at customers’ homes.

Rolls-Royce says it is working closely with ship owners as well as ship-to-shore communications specialists, radar technology companies, major universities and research institutions to develop ‘ship intelligence’ that will power these automated vessels.

“Those who miss out will be the late movers,” said Levander. “They will have higher running costs, higher crew costs and higher fuel costs.”

Edited by Claire Slattery and Stanley Tang

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