May 12th 2017

Equipment manufacturers continue to tout the potential of unmanned, “autonomous” vessels.

The first autonomous ship, a robot offshore supply vessel, is scheduled to be tested in a Norwegian fjord later this year.

So is it realistic to think that in the short-term or even in the medium-term, unmanned ships will be a viable alternative to traditional vessels and crews?

“It’s unlikely the world will see many ships without crews in the next 10 or even the next 20 years,” says George Quick, vice president of the MM&P Pilot Membership Group and chair of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) working group on autonomous shipping.

He made the remarks last month in a presentation at the meeting of the International Federation of Shipmasters Association/Council of American Master Mariners.

Although manufacturers like Rolls Royce Marine and Kongsberg Maritime are promoting their vision of fully autonomous ships, the absence of an international legal framework means ship operators and manufacturers lack the certainty needed to undertake significant investments in the field.

“No shipowner in the international trades would risk building an unmanned ship until the regulatory framework for their operation is established by the International Maritime Organization, and that may take quite a long time,” Quick says, “perhaps 10 years or more.”

He notes that Norway’s trial of the autonomous offshore supply vessel will be conducted under national regulation, which means that the lack of applicable international laws will not be an issue.

Another major obstacle to the development of autonomous ships is the massive amount of investment required.

The conclusion of Rolls Royce and other major equipment manufacturers is in fact that today’s ships cannot be converted to autonomous operation: every unmanned ship will have to be built from scratch.

And because on average the world’s fleet is comparatively quite young, it will be some time before industry decides the time has come to renew it.

Finally, Quick says, the economic feasibility or business model for unmanned ships is completely unproven.

“The actual cost of building and operating an unmanned ship is unknown, especially the costs of the additional redundancy in equipment that will be necessary,” he says.

Routine maintenance of today’s ships is often carried out at sea by workers from low-labor-cost countries.

The same will not be true for autonomous vessels, which will probably have to be serviced by high-wage workers while the vessel is in port.

The project known as MUNIN–Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks–is a collaborative research project co-funded by the European Commission.

MUNIN aims to develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship, which is defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station.

A MUNIN study suggests that unmanned ships could save $7 million over a 25-year-life cycle in fuel, crew supplies and salaries.

But that works out to less than $1,000/day. Not a very significant figure in a capital-intensive industry like shipping, where fuel costs for a large ship, even at today’s relatively low bunker costs, can run over $45,000/day.

To read Quick’s PowerPoint presentation on the future of autonomous ships, click here. Or to view the PowerPoint presentation in PDF format, click here. Additional notes can be found by clicking here.