Autonomous vessels: offshore-industry forges ahead
After drones and self-driving cars, will autonomous vessels be the next thing? No, this is not a scenario from a futuristic movie, it is already a reality in the offshore industry. The shipping industry is yearning for innovation that can increase ship efficiency and address the dire shortage of personnel. While on-board automation is certainly not a new thing, it is more integral to vessels than ever before. In this blog article, we explore the benefits of autonomy and automation for shipping, the challenges involved and the different types of autonomous vessels.
HOW ARE AUTONOMY AND AUTOMATION HELPING SHIPPING MOVE FORWARD?
Many shipping and offshore companies have faced several challenges in recent decades. For instance, many companies are struggling to find personnel, at a time when waterways and ports are in fact getting busier. Moreover, vessels are getting increasingly bigger, making them more difficult to navigate while consuming more fuel. To meet these challenges and get the most out of each vessel, the potential of new technologies is being looked at. Automation and autonomy play a key role in this. To give just a few examples:
- Data collected from sensors for navigation and situational awareness are invaluable to staff. These data can support the crew in making decisions and, in the most extreme cases, even avoid collisions.
- Autonomous vessel control leads to more efficient fuel consumption, which in turn reduces costs for the shipping or offshore company.
- The risk of human errors is reduced. If the Titanic had been autonomous, she might not have sunk.
THE MANY LAYERS OF AUTONOMY
Autonomous vessel is not a catch-all term of course, as 'autonomous' is open to interpretation. This is why the International Maritime Organisation uses four degrees of autonomy:
- Category 1: Vessels with automated processes, such as notifications when components on a vessel are faulty, and decision support, where automation mainly complements control and operation by a crew on board the ship.
- Category 2: Remotely controlled vessel but with a crew on board to take control if necessary.
- Category 3: Remotely controlled vessel without a crew on board
- Category 4: Fully autonomous vessels, whereby the vessel's operating system is able to make decisions and take action based on artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Vessels that fall under category 1 are already quite common today. Category 2 is also becoming increasingly common. In February 2021, for example, a semi-autonomous vessel sailed on Flemish inland waterways for the first time during a pilot project of Seafar and Citymesh. Semi-autonomous in this case refers to a vessel that is remotely controlled by a captain in a control centre, who is in contact with a captain on board. Category 3 and 4 are as yet not common, both on inland waterways and at sea. The biggest barrier to the use of crewless vessels is the lack of the necessary legal framework. However, steps are being taken in the right direction: in 2019, for instance, a crewless vessel sailed from Essex in England to the port of Ostend for the first time.
CONNECTIVITY FOR AUTONOMOUS VESSELS
The basis for autonomous shipping? Connectivity. Whether it concerns remotely controlled ships or fully autonomous ships, connectivity is an absolute requirement. This is necessary for the infrared cameras that support obstacle detection, for example. To determine what kind of connectivity is required, the type of vessel must be taken into account: is it a big container vessel sailing to several continents or a small boat navigating on inland waters only? This is because connectivity at sea is not the same as connectivity on the coastline or on rivers. At sea, for example, ships are able to tap into the 4G or 5G network of wind farms, while connectivity on inland waterways is more likely to be provided by land-based masts.
When choosing the most appropriate connectivity for autonomous vessels, latency is one of the biggest priorities. Latency refers to the delay between the user's action, in this case, for example, remote control by a captain, and the execution of this action. Controlling ships remotely requires low latency. There must also be room for redundancy to ensure the reliability of the connectivity. 5G is often seen as an ideal technology for autonomous vessels because of its very low latency and high reliability. You can be sure of one thing: thanks to the innovations in automation and connectivity, efficiency in shipping is going increasingly further. Autonomous vessels are the pinnacle of innovation and allow the offshore sector to take huge steps forward.
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