Driverless cars, metro rail without motorman and aerial drones are always in the limelight; when it comes to autonomous vehicles, human beings always have a fascination with it. Over the past decade, there has been immense scientific work and research going on about autonomous sailing boats, especially cargo vessels. More the automation more will be the optimization of the use of marine vessels, cut fuel consumption, reduce labour costs as this industry has been and is a highly labour-intensive industry.
Ship designers, builders, and regulators are all gearing up for a future in which cargo vessels sail from port to port without a crew or with minimum crew. When “all hands on deck” (a signal used on board ship, typically in an emergency, to indicate that all crew members are to go on deck) will become history. Advances in automation to such levels and that too unmanned even far offshore could be the biggest change in the shipping industry since diesel engines replaced steam. “The benefit of automation is an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate, and we are keen to implement it to optimize our fleet utilization more, reduce fuel consumption and costs,” said Palle Laursen, head of Maersk Line Ship Management, a unit of cargo-ship giant A.P.
British engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative. Rolls-Royce has involved other renowned companies and universities too in it. The group is also exploring the feasibility of whether the know-how from those working on driverless cars can be adapted for safe at-sea autonomous operations. It also strongly foresees the technologies used in improving commercial airline operations migrating towards ships.
This group headed by Rolls-Royce completed a study this year and concluded such vessels are very much feasible and will offer sizable savings. The futuristic unmanned ship may resemble some of the advanced combat drones. It will have infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras, laser sensors, and special underwater cameras to monitor its surroundings. The vast data collected by all such systems will be transmitted to command centres where staff will monitor progress and ensure ships are operating at optimum speeds and sailing safely. As per Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce’s marine unit, unmanned shipping will help reducing transport costs up to 22%, lower staff cost. “There are a vast range of safety, security, sea pirates, navigational and legal challenges to be solved before crewless container vessels can be considered in our fleet, but surely we look forward to it,” said Maersk’s Mr Laursen.