Unmanned Ships. Could safe navigation and reliability be achieved at an economic initial and operational through-life cost to the ship owner?
Have advances in automation, artificial intelligence (AI), communication bandwidth management and related fields made this revolutionary leap possible?
Consider the following:-
(1). The economic case.
We have a large body of knowledge of both initial and through-life costs for all currently manned ship types. These costs would be the starting point along with costs listed in (3), (4), (5) and (6) along with the increased cost of insuring the ship, cargo and 3rd parties when deciding to go ahead with an unmanned ship. The obvious savings are in crew costs. However, savings may not be as much as anticipated as you move oversight, control, maintenance and repair to shore-based locations.
These commercial costs may be relaxed if early attempts are subsidised by governments or large corporations with deep pockets and an eye on the future.
(2). First adopters.
Operators of certain ship types in a particular trade on a regular limited voyage will be the first to attempt unmanned operation if it can be evidenced that unmanned operation could be an economic proposition.
(3). Safety of Life at Sea.
Does an unmanned ship have any part in the rescue of people in a distress situation? Can an unmanned ship render assistance? Will current SOLAS arrangements be relaxed to accommodate ships unable to actually render on-the-scene physical assistance?
Manned ships provide on scene assistance. Unmanned ships cannot provide physical assistance. Therefore, should the operators of unmanned ships pay a “safety tax” in order to provide an equal coverage for alternative rescue arrangements.
It should be noted that no real attention has been paid to SOLAS or for funding of additional alternative rescue arrangements.
(4). Approval and inspection.
Unmanned ship design, construction and operation should be subject to inspection by a regulatory, independent third party. Who picks up the cost?
(5). Maintenance and repair.
No system is 100% reliable. I make the assumption that like dynamic positioning systems, dual and preferably triple redundancy systems will be installed and in operation.
(6). Oversight and control.
If the ship’s unmanned machinery, navigation and the communications links are made reliable, how much of the navigation and operational elements could be taken over by artificial intelligence and how much will be reliant on real-time shore-based oversight and control?
Which organisations are researching or are involved in the evolution of the unmanned ship?
Project MUNIN – Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks. (With eight associated organisations).
Project Munin was funded by the EU and hosted a public workshop at the Nor-Shipping trade fair in Norway on 3rd Jun 2015 and the MUNIN FINAL event in Hamburg on 10th and 11th June 2015. Their website has the details.
SARUMS Network (Safety and Regulations for Unmanned Maritime Systems) consisting of:-
ASV UK | Belgian Navy | Blue Bear UK | Bluefin Robotics USA | BMT UK | Bundeswehr Germany | DCNS France | DGA France | DMO Netherlands | DNV GL Germany | EDA | Finnish Navy | FMV Sweden | Frazier-Nash Consultancy UK | Fraunhofer-Institut Germany | International Bar Association – Maritime and Transport Law Committee | Italian navy | Liquid Robotics USA | National Oceanography Centre UK | NATO Seaway Mobility team | OCCAR | Porto University Portugal | QINETIQ UK | Saab Sweden | Seaspeed UK | SIREHNA France | TKMS Sweden | Trier University – Law Facility Germany | US Coastguard | US Navy.
MIT Cambridge MA USA (MOOS-IvP project).
Oxford U Mobile Robotics Group UK.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim Norway.
Other organisations are keeping a watching brief along with IMO, ILO and at a governmental department level.
The US Navy have an unmanned class of small minesweeper. The class is designed to operate for up to 48 hours. However, they do not leave the control of a Littoral Combat Vessel acting as a ‘mother hen’. The US Navy, of course, use different criteria as to the requirement for an unmanned vessel.
In conclusion, no one has come out with a definitive, reliable economic, measurable and costed argument for the adoption of an unmanned ship. Expressions such as ‘vision’, ‘prototype’ and ‘proposed’ abound. Will someone give absolute figures by way money saved and equal or improved SOLAS?
Until these figures are available why would you do it?