What Should We Learn from... Autonomous Ships on the High Seas

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What Should We Learn from... Autonomous Ships on the High Seas

Remotely controlled ships, piloted by people on shore, and autonomous ships, which can take actions for themselves, are the latest beneficiaries of increasing digital connectivity and intelligence. These developments in electronic sensors, telecommunications, and computing have sparked interest in a range of autonomous vehicles including cars, planes, helicopters, trains, and now ships. Companies and academic researchers around the world are working hard to turn these ideas into reality.

The European Union’s MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) project, led by the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services, in Hamburg, is assessing the technical, economic, and legal feasibility of operating an uncrewed merchant vessel autonomously during an open-sea voyage. In addition, researchers at DNV GL, an international ship-certification organization, are exploring the feasibility of using uncrewed battery- powered vessels to transport freight along Norway’s long coastline. And China’s Maritime Safety Administration and Wuhan University of Technology have partnered in their Uncrewed Multifunctional Maritime Ships Research and Development Project. Their goal is to find ways for autonomous ships to be used within China’s own commercial and military maritime sectors.

Vital to the development of remotely controlled and autonomous operations will be a ship’s ability to sense and communicate what’s going on around it so that it can navigate to its destination, avoid collisions along the way, and perform complex maneuvers, such as docking when it finally arrives.

The ship’s remote commander or its autonomous-navigation system would also take advantage of many other sources of information: fixes from satellite navigation, weather reports, broadcasts from other ships about their positions and identity.

Ships’ crews today are already using multiple data sources and electronic aids as part of their daily activities. Systems already exist to plot other vessels, assist with navigation decisions, monitor the ship’s main machinery, and ensure that the engines and other key mechanical components are performing properly.

In the future, ever more data will be available from sensors embedded deep in the ship’s key systems—its main engines, cranes and other deck machinery, propellers and bow thrusters, electrical generators, fuel-filtration apparatus, and so forth. This information will help determine whether these systems are working correctly and in the most efficient manner possible. When a critical part starts to fail, preventative maintenance can be scheduled at the next port of call or, if need be, by dispatching people to make repairs while the ship is still at sea.

Of course, when the ship involved is autonomous or remotely operated, getting this data to shore in a timely manner is vital. Such ships will thus require constant real-time communications links. While satellite communications have been available to ships on the high seas for many years, service is now getting really good. In particular, AAWA partner Inmarsat launched its third Global Xpress satellite in August 2015, which gave the company the ability to support broadband data links almost anywhere in the world. So Inmarsat can provide future uncrewed ships with high-speed broadband connections from space, just as it is doing for today’s vessels.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work being done on robotic ships. The paper entitled Autonomous Ships on the High Seas by Oskar Levander on Spectrum IEEE on Feb. 2017 will give you an insider’s perspective about the nature of these efforts and why they are so exciting.

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