Ships without skippers

September 8, 2014
Autonomous ships, vessels for the future. Credit: Rolls Royce

A 200 metre long vessel moves slowly across the dark sea surface. There is no one at the wheel. It is quiet on the bridge. There are no signs of life in the engine room or on deck. A scene from a horror film or science fiction, perhaps? No. This is the bold aim the EU project MUNIN is working to achieve.

Researchers at MARINTEK believe that in ten to twenty years time there will be 200 metre cargo vessels plying the oceans without the need of a captain or crew. But before this can happen, we will be seeing the technology working on an existing vessel.

The SINTEF company MARINTEK is one of eight partners working intensely to develop systems which can function without human intervention. Both day and night watches will be taken care of by a control centre onshore, and the Norwegian researchers believe that a 3 to 4 Mbit broadband connection will ensure effective communication between the vessel and the control room.

"There aren't many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today", says researcher Ørnulf Rødseth. "Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today's vessel accidents", he says.

Lower speeds, less fuel

The basis of the project is that merchant shipping in Europe is suffering from the fact that fewer people are interesting in working at sea. It's not an attractive job sitting cooped up in a vessel looking out over the empty ocean for 14 days, and with only limited contact with family and friends. At the same time, the volumes of goods being transport are increasing considerably and the freighters must be crewed. There are more than a hundred thousand merchant ships in operation around the world, and some areas, such as the English Channel, are constantly overcrowded.

Unmanned vessels, looking after themselves, may be the answer to the problem of making the maritime industry more attractive and sustainable. Such ships can reduce speeds, for example from 16 to 11 knots, and in doing so save 50 per cent of the fuel they burn today. CO2 and other emissions will be reduced and the shipping industry will make massive savings due to lower fuel consumption. Currently, fuel represents by far the largest share of operational costs. If the industry can also save on salary expenditures, it will accept that journeys may take a week or so longer than they do today.

Prove it's safe – then change the rules

Status monitoring and on-board satellite communications are key to the work currently being carried out by the Norwegian researchers. Ørnulf Rødseth emphasises that it is not their job to build a new vessel.

What are you going to do then?

"Well, the technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists", he says. "Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems. It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry", says Rødseth.

"This is why there is a lot of talk about the costs issue, as well as the concerns of shipowners and the general public. We mustn't forget that current rules and legislation all assume that there are PEOPLE ON BOARD", he says.

In order to change the law, researchers will have to demonstrate that safety is as least as good as on existing vessels. For example, even if a sensor system detects an obstacle, the vessel has to be intelligent enough to process the information in order to avoid a collision. Researchers believe that developments such as this will emerge gradually. For example, there will be a transition phase during which it will be safe for crews to sleep at night with the bridge unmanned.

SINTEF investing 12 million

Even tougher is the requirement that technical equipment on board has to be fully functional for periods of two to three weeks. There will be no-one around to carry out repairs. "This is perhaps our biggest challenge", says Rødseth thoughtfully.

In order to carry through its tasks, SINTEF has invested NOK 12 million of its own funds in a project it has called Seatonomy. MUNIN is one of four projects with the aim of identifying problems and developing methods and tools to provide safe and cost-effective autonomous systems.

"There is a need for safe, inexpensive and more robust autonomous vessels in many of SINTEF's research fields, including aquaculture, the offshore wind and subsea sectors, and in connection with oil and gas production and mineral exploitation. Safety is key across all these fields, and the systems developed must be cost-effective", says Rødseth.

Many players on the bandwagon

The German research institute Fraunhofer is heading the MUNIN project. Sweden is working on research into the control centre, and Germany on the machinery and navigation. Ireland is looking into the legislative aspects.

There are similar projects taking place in many other places. In its futures report, Det Norske Veritas GL considered autonomous vessels to be a realistic prospect in the longer term.

Rolls Royce has published conceptual sketches for its own autonomous vessel design, and Oskar Levander, who heads Rolls Royce's research activities in this field in Ålesund, believes that a single 'skipper' on land will be able to operate ten vessels.

This idea still appears to be on the drawing board, and Ørnulf Rødseth is confident that the MUNIN project has advanced much further in terms of both technology and analytical work.

From playful ideas to reality

This is the vessel of the future. And you are allowed to toy around with future trends. Rødseth freely admits that many different and peculiar ideas have appeared on his team's drawing boards. One good example is the use of water jets.

"Large cargo vessels are equipped with a main engine and a reserve engine", he says. "The latter supplies reserve electricity, and is powerful enough to power a water jet which can be used for propulsion and steering if the main engine fails.

Changing the type of fuel is another idea. The heavy oils used today are tar-like dregs. In order to avoid maintenance, autonomous vessels will probably have to run on lighter, more expensive, fuels.

"Less expensive, liquid natural gas might be the answer here", says Rødseth. "But this will involve designing the vessels from scratch".

The research team has to be realistic and design a model which they know is achievable. This means that some of their original ideas have already been discarded. For example, there is nothing to be gained in terms of costs by developing an autonomous system for navigating in and out of port. There will have to be people on board for an hour or two.

Slowly does it

On longer passages, however, autonomous vessels will be on their own.

This sounds very strange. Aircraft follow pre-defined corridors based on safety considerations. Will these vessels have to do the same?

"No," says Rødseth. "The major difference being that aircraft travel at 1000 kilometres per hour. We're talking about vessels moving slowly across the open ocean meeting very little in the way of traffic", he says. "Radar will keep an eye on everything going on. The passage will be adapted to the rules requiring that vessels keep to the right.

And the will be carrying cargoes such as maize and other cereals, or mineral ores. We aren't talking about high-value commodities. Nor do the cargoes represent an environmental hazard if something unforeseen should occur," says Rødseth.

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23 comments

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campbelldbrown
not rated yet Sep 09, 2014
One word: Pirates.
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 09, 2014
I ain't buying it. Them babies is full of hundreds of different of machines and they are known for breaking in a thousand different ways at anytime. Somebody has got to be there to fix him while the ship is underway. It is really a silly idea to take seriously but maybe it is fun for the science fiction writing Skippy.

Sounds like those visioning-Skippys who think we all going to flying about in our own personal air cars like on the cartoons.
Shabs42
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
One word: Pirates.


Responding a little late here, but for most pirates the goal is to ransom the crew for money. No crew = no money. The boats pirates use are definitely not suitable for hauling away large amounts of cargo either.
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
Responding a little late here, but for most pirates the goal is to ransom the crew for money. No crew = no money. The boats pirates use are definitely not suitable for hauling away large amounts of cargo either.


What Skippy, you think those 10 or 5 million dollar ransoms is payed out for the crew--Skippys? Non Cher, those ransoms are for the ships which are insured for hundreds of millions of dollars and the cargoes which is worth another hundreds of millions of dollars. 10 million dollars peanuts to the underwriter-Skippys who don't want to pay out half a billion dollars or some such.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.3 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
I ain't buying it. Them babies is full of hundreds of different of machines and they are known for breaking in a thousand different ways
You worried about grazing in the pasture cher bono? Others are worried about other things.
https://www.youtu...nXNCYdzU

-Maintenance and security will be part of the equation. Security teams are needed in dangerous areas whether or not the ship is automated.

Planes, trains, trucks, and ships will all soon be automated in part because underwriters will prefer it. Construction equipment will deliver themselves to construction sites and do work per BIM docs, digging holes, pouring concrete, erecting steel, installing building systems and equipment, etc.

Fewer accidents will happen because there will be fewer people around to get hurt.
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
I ain't buying it. Them babies is full of hundreds of different of machines and they are known for breaking in a thousand different ways
You worried about grazing in the pasture cher bono?


Non, I am not worried me. I know how much it cost to build a ship that is reliable enough to let it be safe without a crew on board to take care of it. And I have a good idea that to make one so famously reliable as to be safe for the ports, the other ships, and the environment would make it so expensive to build that the costs of shipping the cargoes would be more than anyone would pay.

Fewer accidents will happen because there will be fewer people around to get hurt.


That is not true Cher. What you think, the only people hurt is the crew? Lot more than that is at stake. But the bottom line is that it would cost to much to build the thing reliable enough for an underwriter to be willing to insure him.

I can't get the youtube now, what does it show?
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
P.S. for you Otto-Skippy. I got the youtube to work me. Yes that is a bad thing you see there. But a lot more would happen if the boats went around without a crew. Can you post up all the youtubes where an accident was averted because the machinery failed and a crew was there to do something in time? Those sort of youtubes don't seem to make up on the google I use.

Here's another of the same sort as yours that happen where I was just 25 river miles away from it, put our boat out of work for about 5 or 4 days while they cleaned it up. Machines is good and smart, but they break more oftens than peoples do.

https://www.youtu...BIMql6jE

You want to see some BIG PROBLEMS like this one happen a few times a day, just put them boats and ships out there with nobody to take of troubles.

TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2014
I know how much it cost to build a ship that is reliable enough to let it be safe without a crew on board to take care of it
Or when they fly in maintenance crews to do the work?
And I have a good idea that to make one so famously reliable as to be safe for the ports
Pilots join ships for docking in ports. This practice wouldnt have to change.
would make it so expensive to build
You have no faith in engineers. Look at shipping containers - they said that that would be far too expensive to work.
Lot more than that is at stake
You bet. Barges and ferries seem to run into docks with alarming regularity due to negligence.
I can't get the youtube now
This is what happens when you surf the internet on the galley microwave.

"The video - released days before a wrongful death suit goes to court - shows the 80-yard-long barge moving toward the duck boat, which had broken down, and then driving over the smaller vessel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania..."
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2014
But a lot more would happen if the boats went around without a crew
Thats what they are saying about autonomous cars but they will be the norm in a gen or 2. AI never gets distracted, is never on drugs, never gets confused or pissed off, and can constantly monitor hundreds of objects in multiple ways.

It is not a matter of if but when.
Can you post up all the youtubes where an accident was averted because the machinery failed and a crew was there to do something in time?
Why, we dont need a vid for that. Im sure there are text-only sources out there. If you look.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
"Cruise ship captain Francesco Schettino has sparked outrage by giving a lecture to students on how to ''panic control'' - while standing trial for wrecking the luxury liner he was commanding.

"Schettino, 52, who was dubbed "Captain Calamity" after it emerged he steered the Costa Concordia on to rocks in a sail-by salute, gave a two-hour talk to students as part of their criminal science masters course.

He is currently facing charges of abandoning ship, causing a disaster and multiple manslaughter - with prosecutors claiming his poor handling of the disaster added to the tragedy. Thirty-two people died in the disaster."

heehee
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2014
Or when they fly in maintenance crews to do the work?


Flying someone in is not going to help when something needs the attention right now before a disaster.

Pilots join ships for docking in ports. This practice wouldnt have to change.


Those pilots are good and well for what they do. But the pilot can't pilot and stand by the engines, the auxiliary machinery, and steering gears, all them things are subject to problems at the oddest times.

You have no faith in engineers. Look at shipping containers - they said that that would be far too expensive to work.


I didn't say the engineers couldn't make it. I said they couldn't make it work at the price someone would be willing to pay for it. Containers ain't running machinery, they don't have 1000's of moving parts in dozens of vital machines.

Barges and ferries seem to run into docks with alarming regularity due to negligence.


They do, that's bad. Without a crew, it would probably be more and worse.

TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
""There aren't many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today", says researcher Ørnulf Rødseth. "Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today's vessel accidents", he says."

"The German research institute Fraunhofer is heading the MUNIN project. Sweden is working on research into the control centre, and Germany on the machinery and navigation. Ireland is looking into the legislative aspects."

"Rolls Royce has published conceptual sketches for its own autonomous vessel design, and Oskar Levander, who heads Rolls Royce's research activities in this field in Ålesund, believes that a single 'skipper' on land will be able to operate ten vessels."

"This is the vessel of the future."

-Read the tea leaves Cher Bono.
http://en.wikiped...eography
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2014
"This is the vessel of the future."


Nothing wrong with dreaming Cher. It is something to talk about on the interweb. It does not worry me none because there is some couple of 1000's or even more boats working at what I do, and not a single one being built to run all by him self with on crew on board. When they start to build the first no-crew-towboat maybe then I will be interested enough to take him serious.

Anyone who really knows what is going on in the big machines which are ships and such won't worry much about these thinking-Skippys because they don't do what we do, so they don't know how to dream up the things to make us worry about our jobs.

Maybe you can get the Navy peoples interested in trying it out. They gots money to throw away and they don't need to please the underwriters into thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong. To me this is silly as one of Returnering-Skippy's ideas, it ain't so practical in real life.
Uncle Ira
3 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
-Read the tea leaves Cher Bono.
http://en.wikiped...eography


I wouldn't trust that thing any more than I would something the noneman-Skippy or the Mystical-Skippy or the Returnering-Skippy has to say. You sure you on the right web place?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014

Anyone who really knows what is going on in the big machines which are ships and such won't worry much about these thinking-Skippys
-These guys don't know about ships??

"The Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK) performs research and development for companies in the field of marine technology. MARINTEK... develops and verifies technological solutions, business and operating concepts for the shipping, marine equipment"

"Rolls-Royce offers a range of ship designs for the offshore sector from its well known UT-Design™ family, launched in the mid 1970s... The range includes - platform supply vessels, anchor handling/tug/supply vessels, multi-purpose service vessels and other specialised vessels such as coastal patrol vessels and FPSO/FSOs for sub-sea service, well intervention, drilling, storage and production."

"Together with Bureau Veritas and American Bureau of Shipping, DNV is one of the three major companies in the classification society business."
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
Maybe you can get the Navy peoples interested in trying it out
Already there and beyond.

"The Protector unmanned surface vehicle (USV) was developed by the Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems in response to emerging terrorist threats against maritime assets such as the USS Cole bombing, and is the first operational combat USV in service. It is fitted with a Mini Typhoon Weapon Station. By 2005, it was being first deployed by the Republic of Singapore Navy, then in support of coalition forces in the Persian Gulf and later in anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden."

"The Fleet class USV is an Unmanned Surface Vessel designed for the United States Navy to be deployed from Freedom and Independence-class littoral combat ships and intended to conduct mine and anti-submarine warfare missions. As of 2012 four units of the class have been built; the first was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 2008."

-Not if but when.
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2014
Well Otto-Skippy, you seem to think these things are coming out the yards at a dozen a week. It may be the way the of the future Cher, but since they have not built the first one it is way to far into the future for me to get much excitement out of.

But you keep your eyes open and let know when they start coming off the ways, Them little things you say the Navy gots is no more than remote control water drones, them ain't ships. The Air Force has them things a long time, eh Cher? How many peoples are flying in them from New Orleans Inter Airport to someplace easy like Baton Rouge yesterday? If they had them, I would not fly on him even if it were free. I would not fly on one of them even if they paid me for the ticket.

I'll get excited about the ships with no crew when someone starts building one, after the first is going, I suppose I got a few years to retire before every towboat is replaced. Maybe mine not be one of the first to go.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
Well Otto-Skippy, you seem to think these things are coming out the yards at a dozen a week.
Where did I say that? I quote what I read.
I'll get excited about the ships with no crew when someone starts building one
Will you still be excitable in 10 years?

"The vessels, according to Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, would be 5 percent lighter than a traditional ship before they take cargo. They would also, crucially, burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel. The high-tech ghost ships, Rolls-Royce tells Bloomberg, could be operating in regions like the Baltic Sea "within a decade."
Uncle Ira
3 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
Will you still be excitable in 10 years?


Why not? I'll get excited about him in 10 years sure. But now all it is a thinking about it thing. And I just don't think they done enough thinking on him to think that it will happen much in my lifetime no. Shoot the last time they send the man to the moon was the year I was born in. They been "thinking" about going back for 42 years, They still thinking about it.

"The vessels, according to Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, would be 5 percent lighter than a traditional ship before they take cargo. They would also, crucially, burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel. The high-tech ghost ships, Rolls-Royce tells Bloomberg, could be operating in regions like the Baltic Sea "within a decade."


I guess they could be. But I don't think they will. That's what you call an "over optimizer pipe dream" down here in Louisiana. You see these kind "predictions" all the time.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
Them little things you say the Navy gots is no more than remote control water drones, them ain't ships
The ocean is a big place. At that scale all ships are small. Those combat ships perform far more complicated missions than freighters, non?
The Air Force has them things a long time, eh Cher? How many peoples are flying in them
"Once the craft was safely at cruising altitude, the pilot flicked a switch and handed over to a trained controller sitting at a computer screen many miles away on the ground... For the first time in aviation history, a 'pilotless' passenger plane was flying over mainland Britain. That concept might make many people uneasy. But, according to the air industry, it is the future of flight.

"Some predict that within five, ten or 20 years, commercial jets will be flown routinely by remote control over our towns and cities."
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2014
"And, unlike humans, computers don't get tired, don't need lavatory breaks, don't have unions and don't need regular rest periods (or get drunk at parties with stewardesses the night before they fly).

"BAE Systems also points out that aircraft have been controlled by computers for years. On a typical long-distance flight, autopilots fly the plane for between 80 and 90 per cent of the trip. And that's not just the dull bits in the middle either. Many commercial pilots routinely land at Heathrow with the help of automated systems."

-I would much prefer automated systems. Human pilots do things like this :

"Colgan Air Flight 3407... crashed on February 12, 2009... The NTSB determined that in addition to Renslow's inadequate response to the stick shaker activation, there were key contributing factors. Primary among these were the flight crew's failure to monitor airspeed... "The pilots' performance was likely impaired because of fatigue..."
Estevan57
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 14, 2014
Quotes don't make boats.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (2) Sep 14, 2014
Quotes don't make boats.
... peep?

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