Current international shipping law states that maritime vessels must be properly crewed, so completely self-governing, unmanned ships are not permitted in international waters.
The Yara Birkeland is not your ordinary cargo ship. If all goes as planned then the vessel, being built for a Norwegian agricultural fertiliser company, will turn into the world’s first fully autonomous cargo ship when it launches in 2020. However, in compliance with existing legislation, the Yara Birkeland will have to operate close to the Norwegian coast at all times.
Several Japanese shipping firms are allegedly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology. Rolls-Royce demonstrated the world’s first remote-controlled unmanned commercial earlier this year. The Yara should operate autonomously in open water and be remotely controlled by a land-based “captain” when it is entering and leaving ports.
This raises the prospect of crewless “ghost” ships crisscrossing the ocean, with the potential for cheaper shipping with fewer mishaps. Nonetheless, eliminating experienced crew from ships means that any accidents could be significantly more serious. Many practical, regulatory and technological hurdles remain in transforming the world’s cargo ships into a completely autonomous armada. This could translate into a long time before it is really beneficial to invest in the technology.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) reunited in June 2017 to initiate dialogues that may change the rules set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The aim is to allow ships with no captain or crew to operate across oceans. Ships trading internationally need to be compliant with these procedures and the issues involving the safety and economics of unmanned ships have barely started to be considered. A lot of work should be done before solutions are found, or agreements are reached.
One of the greatest issues is the safety of depending exclusively on computers to operate ships over vast ocean distances. Some argue that autonomous ships would have fewer accidents. Human errors accounted for 62% of the 880 accidents occurring globally in 2016, according to the European Maritime Safety Agency in its annual overview, with the majority of maritime accidents involving collisions or groundings. Furthermore, the absence of a crew would make ships less vulnerable to pirates, who would have no one to take prisoners and would be unable to steer a ship with no bridge.
If we assume that autonomous vessels might be navigated without making the same mistakes as a human crew, then the statistics do seem to work in the technologies favour. But things are actually much more complex than that.
Another study analysed 100 accidents that happened from 1999 to 2015. The researchers attempted to evaluate whether the accidents would have been more or less likely to happen if the vessel had been unmanned. They found that the probability of groundings or collisions might have been reduced significantly if those vessels had been unmanned.
But they additionally recognised that where accidents do happen, the outcomes may turn out to be more severe without a crew to intercede. In particular, accidents including 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 of accidents would decrease significantly if ships were unmanned. Despite that, there is certainly a case to be made that there will be fewer.
The operators of cargo ships will only adopt unmanned ships if they offer economic advantages. The shipping industry is keen to switch to autonomous ships in part to avoid having to pay a crew, which can represent half a ship’s expenses. If profit margins can be increased, then the return on investment of buying and operating a ship may be appealing. The full picture is, once more, complex. A recent study reviewing the potential financial benefits of unmanned ships found that there are surely savings to be made, mainly related to crew pay, accommodation and utilities.
There should be an overall reduction in seafarers but some new expenses will likewise be created. A new family friendly shore-based workforce should be created in operations centres on land, where a handful of people would monitor hundreds of ships.
Such ships would be less able to rescue people from other vessels in distress. Nonetheless, their radar scanning systems would be better than a pair of human eyes at detecting a problem and reporting it. The cost of the new sensors and control systems required will also offset any potential savings. Besides, unmanned ships would be better than human navigators at avoiding obstacles. However, ships travelling long distances are likely to retain a small maintenance crew.
There is also a practical problem. Most 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. In that case, then unmanned ships would need to operate using a more refined fuel such as marine-grade diesel oil. This may be able to lessen the cost of carrying freight by only 3.4%.
As the Yara Birkeland starts its journey towards the status of the first entirely autonomous ship, there will be lots of attention set around its price. It feels inevitable that “ghost ships” will come of age. But there are still a lot of issues that should be addressed before they turn into a standard alternative for carriers.