Unmanned ships are coming – but they could cost the cargo industry dearly

September 4, 2017 by Christian Matthews, The Conversation
Credit: Rolls-Royce/Flickr

The Yara Birkeland isn't an ordinary cargo ship. If all goes well then the vessel, currently being built for a Norwegian agricultural fertiliser company, will become the world's first fully autonomous cargo ship when it launches in 2020.

Current international shipping law states that ocean-going vessels must be properly crewed, so fully autonomous, unmanned aren't allowed in international waters. As such, the Yara Birkeland will have to operate close to the Norweigan coast at all times, carrying out regular short journeys between three ports in the south of the country.

But change is afoot in the maritime sector, and earlier this year the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) began discussions that could allow unmanned ships to operate across oceans. This raises the prospect of crewless "ghost" ships crisscrossing the ocean, with the potential for cheaper shipping with fewer .

Several Japanese shipping firms, for example, are reportedly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology. And British firm Rolls-Royce demonstrated the world's first remote-controlled unmanned commercial ship earlier this year.

However, removing experienced crew from ships means that any accidents that do occur could be far more severe. On top of this, many practical, regulatory and technological barriers remain in turning the world's cargo ships into a fully autonomous fleet, and that could mean it's a long time before it's actually profitable to invest in the technology.

The IMO's Maritime Safety Committee sat for the 98th time in June 2017, starting discussions that may well lead to a change in the rules set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. But indications are that it is likely to be a long and complex process. The issues relating to the safety and economics of unmanned ships have barely started to be considered. A lot of work will need to be done before solutions are found, or agreements are reached.

Fewer accidents?

One of the biggest issues is the safety of solely relying on computers to operate ships over vast ocean distances. Some think that autonomous ships would have fewer accidents because the majority of maritime accidents involve collisions or groundings, caused by humans. In its 2016 annual overview, the European Maritime Safety Agency found that 62% of the 880 accidents occurring globally (2011-2015) were caused by "human erroneous action".

Controlling ships without getting your feet wet. Credit: Rolls-Royce/Flickr

If we accept that autonomous vessels might be navigated without making the same mistakes as a human crew then the statistics do seem to stack up. But things are actually much more complex than that.

A study from March 2017 analysed 100 accidents that occurred from 1999 to 2015. The researchers attempted to assess whether the accidents would have been more or less likely to happen if the vessel had been unmanned. They found that the likelihood of groundings or collisions might have been decreased significantly if those vessels had been unmanned.

But they also identified that where accidents do happen, the consequences may become more severe without a crew to intervene. In particular, accidents involving fires may be more serious if there is no crew to act as firefighters. This means it's far from clear that the overall risk from accidents would decrease significantly if ships were unmanned, although there is certainly a case to be made that there will be fewer.

The operators of will also only adopt unmanned ships if they offer economic benefits. If profit margins can be increased, then the return on investment of buying and operating a ship may be attractive. The full picture is, again, complex. A recent study reviewing the potential economic benefits of unmanned ships found that there are indeed savings to be made, mainly related to crew pay, accommodation and utilities.

Unexpected costs

But some new costs will also be introduced, with a new workforce needed to do more family friendly shore-based jobs in operations centres. The cost of the new sensors and control systems required will also offset any potential savings. The study found that if potentially improved fuel efficiency is factored in then an unmanned bulk cargo carrier may be able to reduce the cost of carrying freight by around just 3.4%.

There is also a practical problem. The majority of ships operate on heavy fuel oil that is so thick and dirty that it must be heated and purified on board before use. The study found that it would be impractical to automate this process. If that is the case, then unmanned ships would need to operate using a more refined fuel such as marine-grade diesel oil. This would reverse the economic argument substantially, increasing the cost of transporting freight by as much as 14.8%.

As the Yara Birkeland starts her journey towards the status of the first fully autonomous ship, there will be lots of interest in how she fares. It feels inevitable that unmanned ships will come of age. But there are still plenty of problems that need to be solved before they become a mainstream choice for carriers.

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17 comments

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Eikka
not rated yet Sep 04, 2017
The lack of crew to do traditional navigation means higher chance for all the ships to fail simultaneously, leading to a megacatastrophe. For example, a magnetic storm that shuts down GPS.

Osiris1
not rated yet Sep 04, 2017
Coming SOON to a harbor near YOU!!... a pirated zombie ship that the pirates poked with an RPG off the coast of the lawless place off the horn of Africa, HACKED and STUFFED with dirty bombs, other bad stuff, and maybe even biological agents. Then they used an old satellite they hacked so the ISIS dope fiends could control the zombie/monster from the comforts of their jungle lairs and pilot their ship renamed "Allahs revenge on corporate greedsters" right up to England and into London Harbor to its' and England's demise. Imagine what the north Koreans or Somali pirates or ISIS or even Maduro the Venezuelan dikktater could do with an defenseless blimpo literally rolling out the red carpet for all manner of evil while alone on the open ocean. Annnnd, for the crowner, the so called controllers in those corporate offices will get to watch everything and be helpless to do anything unless they want to authorize robots that kill.....ileegalllly. Smart military 'bots do not exist!
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 05, 2017
Coming SOON to a harbor near YOU!!... a pirated zombie ship that the pirates poked with an RPG off the coast of the lawless place off the horn of Africa, HACKED and STUFFED with dirty bombs

That these are automated does not mean they are blind. They will have cameras which remote operators will be able to access (and even if thousands of these were coupled to only a single operator: it's not hard to flag images as important when they contain an approaching vessel)

The 'danger' is the same as on any container ship where someone could stuff a dirty bomb in a container at the port of origin.

Actually if we think this to its logical end (single container swarm ships) one could come up with an off-shore x-ray rig which they swim through which could automatically inspect all containers before they come close to their destination. That would be even safer than the current spot checks.
xponen
5 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2017
The lack of crew to do traditional navigation means higher chance for all the ships to fail simultaneously, leading to a megacatastrophe. For example, a magnetic storm that shuts down GPS. -Eikka

I think ship & aircraft have a reliable backup system called "Inertial Navigation System". This is what they use before GPS exist.

Also, the cost of system redundancy in these ship is probably only a tiny fraction of the ship's cost since a typical cost ship already cost like a Billion dollar each.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2017
I think ship & aircraft have a reliable backup system called "Inertial Navigation System".

Today it would even be possible to have ships navigate automatically by the stars or the position of the sun alone (even on overcast days) as a backup.
All you need is an accurate clock. And today's clocks (even the dirt cheap ones on a chip) can be very accurate

Also, the cost of system redundancy in these ship is probably only a tiny fraction of the ship's cost

The cost of having a redundant navigation system that can do GPS, star charts and inertial navigation is...the cost of one smartphone. The thing you carry around in your pocket can do it all with plenty of power to spare. If you reduce it to the essential components you're looking at a few cents worth of integrated circuits.
Captain Jack
5 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2017
The first thing I would like to point out is the photo is not of the vessel YARA Birkeland. The vessel pictured is just a concept of what the ships might look like.

Second thing, we humans are very expensive. Training, medical, food, entertainment, turnover, insurance, HR, piracy, and benefits are costs that keep increasing. I've joked that a gold plated robot ship would be more economical.

Third thing, Heavy oil (bunker) is on the way out. Many ships are turning to LNG which is cheaper and comes with many benefits that oil can not provide. That said, the industry is already moving forward with electric powered with battery storage. There are two ferries that are fully electric and been operation for two years.

Many ships now have their throttles remotely controlled by their respective companies. Reason, is they can adjust for market price of bunker oil which saves money.
Captain Jack
5 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2017
The lack of crew to do traditional navigation means higher chance for all the ships to fail simultaneously, leading to a megacatastrophe. For example, a magnetic storm that shuts down GPS.


That wouldn't be much of a big deal as ships break down all the time at sea. Sea Tugs are dispatched and bring the ships home. The issue that worries us the most and is most costly, is Piracy. Sometimes it takes months to get the crew home alive.
Humans and autonomous ships can navigate just fine without GPS. We practice this all the time just in case GPS fails. There is eLoran, magnetic compass, radar, and Mark II eyeball. Autonomous ships don't have to navigate all the way to the docks either. All ships today are required to have tug assist before reaching the coast. It's the harbor pilot that jumps aboard (by boat or heli) and takes control of the ship for docking.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2017
The issue that worries us the most and is most costly, is Piracy.


I could see a way to thwart piracy: Go to individual container swarm ships. As soon as a camera picks up an approaching vessel that might be a pirate: scuttle the container.

Sure you lose a container (or maybe 10 or 20) - but sooner or later pirates will just stop since they never make any bounty.

Autonomous ships don't have to navigate all the way to the docks either.

The planned ship by Rolls Royce has a micro-bridge where a navigator can step in (either virtually or physically) and guide the ship the last mile.

Here's the final brochure of Project Munin for autonomous guided ships (which uses a shoreside egineering, situations and control room), as well as some cost benefit analyses.
http://www.unmann...hure.pdf
Captain Jack
5 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2017
I could see a way to thwart piracy: Go to individual container…


Pirates are not after the cargo. They are looking for cash that is carried onboard or hold the crew as hostages. The reason for this, is they don't pose the equipment to off load the container or their contents at sea to an amount that would be worth their efforts. There is also the issue getting lucky in finding a container with something that they can sell. There are many containers that have odd ball equipment that is useless to sell. If they did find something to sell, where are they going to find buyers that have large sums of money? It's just simpler to take hostages and get paid millions in cash.

Autonomous ships won't have any door other than ones that are for maintenance which would be looked. If you look at the YARA Birkeland images there is not easy access to the container doors. It would be pointless for pirates to attack these autonomous ships, without expensive gear and support vessels.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 07, 2017
where someone could stuff a dirty bomb in a container at the port of origin.


That's not as easy as you make it sound, because the ports and customs are constantly on the lookout for chemical weapons, contraband and people being smuggled in the containers. They x-ray the containers, check them with geiger counters etc.

Getting a dirty bomb into an outbound container would take a bigger conspiracy than a rag-tag team of terrorists can manage.

Meanwhile, a drone ship on the ocean could be disabled and commandeered, and the ship itself becomes a weapon. Just ram it into another ship, or drive it head on into a port or a bridge.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 07, 2017
Many ships now have their throttles remotely controlled by their respective companies. Reason, is they can adjust for market price of bunker oil which saves money.


That sounds like absolute bullcrap. How is the market price going to affect the fuel that is already on-board the ship?
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2017
"In particular, accidents involving fires may be more serious if there is no crew to act as firefighters."

-I would think this is due in part to the fact that ships are designed to enable humans to fight fires. Ships could be designed with totally autonomous systems without firefighter access which would be far more efficient.
Getting a dirty bomb into an outbound container would take a bigger conspiracy than a rag-tag team of terrorists can manage
Smuggling arms is easy.

"This doesn't mean the ship owners, or even the captains, know what they are carrying. But it is relatively easy for traffickers to hide arms and drugs in among legitimate cargoes," said the report's co-author Hugh Griffiths."

Meanwhile, a drone ship on the ocean could be disabled and commandeered, and the ship itself becomes a weapon
- Not if there are no accessible controls.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2017
"They included hiding goods in sealed shipping containers that claim to carry legitimate items; sending the goods on foreign-owned ships engaged in legitimate trade; and using circuitous routes to make the shipments harder for surveillance operations to track.

"Containerisation has revolutionised international trade, but it also provides ideal cover for traffickers. So many shipping containers pass through the world's ports every day that only a fraction can be inspected," Griffiths said."
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2017
BTW thank you captain Jack for your knowledgeable input on the subject which I should have read before responding to eikka.

Unmanned Ships that lost navigation and control would just stop and wait for rescue wouldnt they?
TransmissionDump
not rated yet Sep 07, 2017
Piracy as we know it may change somewhat, instead of holding crews to ransom they might now hack the ship, commandeer the nav system and hold the entire vessel to ransom.
Captain Jack
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2017
Unmanned Ships that lost navigation and control would just stop and wait for rescue wouldn't they?


That's correct. Here's a video from Rolls Royce demonstrating a similar failure: https://youtu.be/vg0A9Ve7SxE

Breakdowns at sea do happen even with today's ships. There are ocean going tugs that do go out and rescue ships. It does take several days for the tugs to reach them though because of the distance.
Captain Jack
5 / 5 (1) Sep 07, 2017
Piracy as we know it may change somewhat, instead of holding crews to ransom they might now hack the ship, commandeer the nav system and hold the entire vessel to ransom.


Autonomy effectively ends piracy. It wouldn't be worth their time and effort. The value of any cargo ship for pirates is the crew's lives, not the cargo it carries. You never hear in the news 'Crew kill, cargo held for ransom'. Besides, you would also have to hack the company who has the cargo manifest. Container ships often run with little to no cargo because they are returning the empty containers.

Let's assume hackers did get control of the ship. All the company has to do is activate the kill switch remotely via a separate satellite system. It's an independent system and can't be hacked because it's a receive only system.
Now unless the hackers have expensive tugboats to retrieve the ship and get it to a port where they also have expensive cranes to unload the cargo. It's pointless. :)

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