Automated Ships Coming To European Waters

In a sustainable effort to adhere to strict rules of decarbonization, reduced levels of noise pollution, and to take the pressure off a saturated road transport system, the European shipping industry may now be looking at a revolution with its concept for Automated ships.

Automated ships, is a buzzword that has been doing the rounds for quite some time. To be able to man a vessel, much like a self-driving car can not only have long-lasting impacts on the functioning but also create a technological revolution in the industry. European researchers are currently working on designs to understand degrees of autonomy, as well as their capacity to contribute.

AUTOSHIP, a project undertaken for the same has released two automated ships to sail across Europe today. The sailed ships are to be studied for different cases. While one ship heading to Norway, delivers fish feed along the west coast, the other, operating at Flanders is an inland cargo barge, located in Belgium.

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Each automated ship is faced with a challenge. The former will experience weather changed and the latter is to be able to navigate through routes in a confined waterway.

These retrofitted ships have 3 main parts that make it autonomous. These are:

  • The vessel control systems
  • Digital connectivity from the vessel to the shore
  • Shore based-systems

The control system is responsible for the ship to sail autonomously. With sub-systems such as sensors, cameras, and positioned technologies to detect obstacles, the navigation system makes decisions on steering the vessel based on the sensor fusion or collection of these data. A lot similar to scanning systems in AI systems in cars, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) gives the ship a larger spectrum of information than in cars to be able to manoeuvre and slow down.

Auto-berthing and Auto crossing are two more systems developed by Kongsberg Maritime, allowing for the interaction of the crew with the ship through a range of sensors to aid in docking and positioning

The sailed ships, currently house the crew too. This is so that actions can be taken in the event of a problem. The connection of the ship’s technology to be perpetually in connection with the control centre on the shore would allow remote as well as manual monitoring of the ships and sensors, as a safety measure.

Innovation Manager McFarlane, a participant on project AUTOSHIP sees considerable advantages to automating systems, the primary reason being that it is a sustainable alternative that replaces the capacity of over 7500 trucks, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 90%.

The NOVIMAR project, however, believes in enforcing automation in intermediate levels, or for short-sea transport as a partly automated following ship, suggesting that the manual presence of at least one human is necessary.

The need for partial automation can also be seen as a way to reduce operating costs while also tending to labour shortages, the latter being a problem for the European shipping industry. A 2016 BIMCO study also revealed a predicted shortage of about 150,000 marine officers worldwide, hence reinforcing the importance of automated shipping.

In terms of social impact, this can also mean loss of jobs for truck drivers and workers in inland shipping, says McFarlane. In the argument, Innovation Manager at NOVIMAR, Van Heusden-van Winden explains that technology will not be seen as a threat, but rather, as a way to allow workers to be more qualified and to use labour efficiently.

Hurdles are still not far away, even with the onset of automated ships. Issues with the regulation of a number of people on vessels, physical supervision, and its business affordability, when faced with a catastrophe or accident, is still a pondering question that remains to be sorted.

On the bright side, both projects are looking forward to demonstrations of their own in the coming years, keeping the optimism of ‘ghost ships’ being a common sight on European waters, a reality.


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