2015 Dec 02

Study finds autonomous ships unlikely within next decade

Drone cargo ships, known colloquially as ‘ghost’ ships, are unlikely to start operations within the coming decade and an intermediate step of partially automated ships with much reduced crew levels should be expected beforehand. 

A study on key technologies impacting the ports and logistics sector commissioned by global terminal operator DP World said the introduction of drone ships faces significant challenges, not least the minimum crew requirements set out in international maritime conventions.

“A related concern is safety, and it is unclear when autonomous or remotely-operated ships will be able to adequately cope with the challenges of weather, obstacles and in-trip repair,” the study notes.

However, a study completed in October by the European Commission’s Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Networks project found that for foundering and collision scenarios, drone ships have a lower risk than a conventional vessel.

The Commission study concluded that drone ships can surmount the legal obstacles to their development.

“It appears that the unmanned ship does not pose an unsurmountable substantial obstacle in legal terms. Provided there is reasonable certainty that the unmanned ship can operate at least as safely as a manned ship, in all its functionalities, there is no reason to think that the legal framework cannot be adapted,” it said.

Development work on drone ships continues to move forward with global satellite communications company Inmarsat recently joining the Advanced Waterborne Applications initiative led by the Rolls Royce Holdings. Inmarsat said it will provide expertise in data transfer and communications to the AAWA project.

Inmarsat’s third Global Xpress satellite becomes operational at the end of the year, which means there are now no coverage blackspots in any of the world’s seas that would allow drone ships to lose contact with their human operators.

The Royce Holdings Blue Ocean development team in Norway is working on designs for a remote-controlled cargo vessel and claim most of the technology is available but it needs to be integrated into a working vessel. It is the legal and regulatory environment that is seen as the major obstacle to deploying drone ships in a working capacity.

If the regulatory challenges can be overcome, drone ships could eliminate the majority of shipping accidents, which are most often caused by human error due to fatigue, the study said. Drone ships would also be less appealing targets for piracy because they would not have any possible hostages.

“From the perspective of port operators, drone ships would integrate best with the most automated terminals and would be beneficial for their business by helping to maintain the cost-competitiveness of sea transport,” the study said.

Rolls-Royce estimates drone ships could reduce fuel consumption by up to 20 percent; could store more cargo relative to the ship’s size, and be 40 percent cheaper to operate. The European Commission study found that in a comparison between an automated bulker and manned bulker, the drone would improve expected present value by $7 million over a 25-year period.

Source:; Turloch Mooney

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