Anybody Aboard?

Artificial intelligence will soon be making a career in the maritime industry: Because specialist personnel and cargo space are scarce and transport costs are high, more and more ship owners are relying on ships with state-of-the-art assistance systems and autonomous driving functions.

Autonomous ships will get by completely without captain and crew. Photo: Fotolia Kalyakan

When autonomous vessels plough through the waves in the future, the history of ghost ships will have to be rewritten. Legends like the Flying Dutchman and the Marie Celeste have one thing in common. Both vessels had a crew on board before fate befell them in the vastness of the oceans. Autonomous ships, on the other hand, set sail without a crew responsible for navigation and manoeuvres. The part of captain, officers and sailors is taken over by artificial intelligence. It makes sure that the ship always behaves correctly to the swell and avoids obstacles on the course. It will probably take several decades before such scenarios become reality. However, international maritime law is already setting the course for this. After all, autonomous ships are not abandoned ships that any skipper could take in his possession if he encountered them during the voyage. Since May 2018, a Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has been dealing with the changes in regulations that the use of robotic ships requires.

Ships with Autonomous Capabilities are Gaining Momentum

Countries like Norway, Finland and Australia are already working on autonomous ships, Japan wants to send unmanned container giants to the USA starting 2025. In Germany, too, ships with autonomous capabilities are taking to the water. According to a study by the auditing company PricewaterhouseCoopers, around a quarter of ship owners in Germany assume that unmanned shipping will come. The Hamburg-based shipping company Bernhard Schulte is already travelling in this direction with a semi-autonomous container ship. Equipped with assistance systems for autonomous navigation, identification and collision prevention, the “Hannah Schulte” recently successfully completed a voyage lasting several days via three Mediterranean ports.

Such projects should give a boost to the maritime industry. It is struggling with a shortage of skilled personnel, high transport costs and increasing freight volumes. Ships with autonomous technologies are expected to have lower personnel costs, more efficient routes, reduced fuel consumption and more loading capacity. Safety is also an area that can be adjusted. Current statistics show that in the years between 2011 and 2016 around 75 percent of the loss value of all shipping accidents is due to human error.

Inland navigation can also be facilitated by assistance systems. Photo: DLR

Assistance Systems Facilitate Navigation

Road traffic has shown that powerful assistance systems can prevent accidents or at least mitigate the consequences. The development of unmanned shipping is likely to take a similar path to autonomous driving on land. In the first phase, automated systems will be used to support crews. This will make navigation easier, especially in heavily frequented sea areas. In further phases, highly automated and autonomous ships will be deployed in designated zones and on certain routes. The German government is keeping an eye on this development, as an inquiry by the FDP parliamentary group at the end of June 2018 on the potential of autonomous shipping in Germany makes clear. On the political agenda are test areas for highly automated, remote-controlled and autonomous ships and systems. Urban areas with a branched waterway network, the Lower Elbe area and large ports are particularly suitable for this purpose.

New Technologies for Inland Waterway Transport

In fact, assistance systems can also improve safety and comfort on rivers and canals. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is already researching systems that are tailored to the needs of inland navigation. These include a railway guidance assistant that independently steers the ship along a previously defined route. During the voyage, a bridge approach warning system checks whether the ship can safely cross the next bridge or whether the wheelhouse and radar mast have to be lowered. In the port, a mooring assistant supports the skipper in his manoeuvre by indicating the distances to quay walls and other ships. In both cases, the electronic assistants work with a precise position determination for the vessel that includes GPS data as well as information such as the current water level. The proof of performance for these systems is already available. The DLR scientists sent a well-equipped test vehicle on the Main river in the Würzburg area for a test drive at the end of May 2018. It is said that the “MS Jenny” successfully completed the 20-kilometer course with twelve bridges.

The “MS Jenny” has successfully completed a test course with twelve bridges. Photo: DLR

Norway Launches Innovation Project “Yara Birkeland”

By the way, a spectacular innovation project is currently taking shape in Norway. The world’s first container ship with electric propulsion and autonomous driving functions is to be launched there at the beginning of 2020. The freighter, which is almost 80 meters long and 15 meters wide and has a loading capacity of 120 containers, bears the beautiful name “Yara Birkeland” and belongs to the chemical company Yara. It is to transport chemicals and fertilizers from the production facilities at Heroya in southern Norway to the ports of Brevik and Larvik. In the first operating phase, a crew on board will steer the ship. The autonomous mode will then gradually be implemented by 2022. A specially set up control centre on shore will then take over the task of monitoring the ship’s course and intervening in emergencies.

“Yara Birkeland” will be the world’s first container ship with electric drive and autonomous driving functions. Photo: Yara.

Before robotic ships like the Yara Birkeland can set course for international waters, however, there are still tricky questions to be answered. Who is responsible, for example, if artificial intelligence makes the wrong decision in a dangerous situation? Autonomous ships are also said to be particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks. If criminals manipulate locating signals unnoticed, they face the same fate as the Flying Dutchman once did. They then become a ghost ship.

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