Autonomous shipping

Autonomous shipping

As the shipping industry gears up for a future of smart, increasingly automated ships, ABB Review looks into what autonomous shipping means – and what it doesn’t.

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Capt. Eero Lehtovaara Head of Regulatory ­Affairs, ABB Marine & Ports Helsinki, Finland, eero.lehtovaara@fi.abb.com

Autonomous solutions are expected to transform international shipping in the coming decades, making day-to-day operations safer, more ­efficient and more productive for crews – no matter where they may be located. But what does the phrase ‘autonomous shipping’ really stand for?

Autonomous, not uncrewed
Perhaps the most important point to make is that in the near-term future, ships sailing themselves will remain a vision rather than reality – an autonomous ship does not mean an uncrewed one.

Autonomous shipping is set to revolutionize work in the maritime industry not by replacing humans on board vessels but by augmenting their cognitive capabilities to enhance the ship operators’ potential.

As an example, the challenges are considered faced by the officer of the watch, who is responsible for ensuring a safe navigation of the vessel whilst keeping a watch on the bridge. Not only must she or he contend with working shifts and periods of fatigue and boredom, but also with spells on the bridge during which the outlook is impaired by darkness, fog or challenging weather. In such circumstances, autonomous systems supplementing a ship’s radar – including cameras and sensors – could significantly improve situational awareness - easing workload, stress and strain, and enhancing safety.

The technologies exist, now the regulations are needed
The technologies for autonomous shipping are already available today for nearly any kind of vessel. For example, ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control, a next-generation intelligent maneu­vering and control system, is designed to ­optimize vessel responsiveness, efficiency and safety across the entire operating profile. The system allows the deployment of joystick control for maneuvering at all times, including around the berth. It simplifies ship maneuvering by reducing the workload on automating navigational tasks and allows bridge officers to focus on the overall control and positioning of the ship.

What is still lacking, however, is the regulatory framework both at an international level through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and, for local applications, from regional authorities. ABB is collaborating closely with key industry organizations and policy makers to support the work on defining these regulatory frameworks. It is paramount that within the industry, there is agreement on the definitions, and a solid regulatory framework is put in place to support the pace of technological development.

Towards autonomous shipping, one step at a time
The creation of autonomous shipping means starting simple and moving up the scale in a stepwise manner, to verify that each technology layer works before the next level can be tackled. As stated in ABB’s B0 whitepaper, a conditionally and periodically unattended bridge would, in open water, allow the crew to manage their working hours in a different way than today.

They could avoid boredom and fatigue, and at the same time tend to other practical tasks, while autonomous systems keep the ship on course and watch for potential danger.

Manned autonomous systems could be adopted in both coastal and deep-sea trades if appropriate regulations were in place. Meanwhile the operation of tugs and service vessels could be supported remotely in a harbor, similarly to air traffic control. And fully autonomous vessels could provide transport for short-haul cargo movements or ferry crossings between two fixed points.

The future picture
The next generation of ships will be electric, digital and connected, as the industry moves towards new energy sources and increasingly autonomous ship operations. Eventually, the tasks onboard will change, but the crew and captain will still have crucial roles working alongside the technology. The future-proof ships will be built on the foundation of digitalization, and will effectively transform the industry into truly collaborative and automated operations. 

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