In 10 to 20 years time, there will be 200m long cargo vessels sailing the oceans without the need of a captain or crew, say researchers at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK).
“But before this can happen, we will be seeing the technology working on an existing vessel,” according to Sintef, Scandinavia’s largest independent research body. The Sintef company MARINTEK is one of eight partners working to develop systems which can function without human intervention.
Both day and night watches will be taken care of by a control centre onshore, and the researchers believe that a 3 to 4 Mbit broadband connection will ensure effective communication between the vessel and the control room. “If the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today”, said researcher Ornulf Rodseth.
“Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today’s vessel accidents.” Sintef said the basis of the project is that merchant shipping in Europe is suffering from the fact that fewer people are interested in working at sea and at the same time, the volumes of goods being transported are increasing considerably and the ships must be crewed.
“Unmanned vessels, looking after themselves, may be the answer to the problem of making the maritime industry more sustainable,” said Sintef. “Such ships can reduce speeds, for example from 16 to 11 knots, and in doing so save 50 per cent of the fuel they burn today. CO2 and other emissions will be reduced and the shipping industry will make massive savings due to lower fuel consumption. If the industry can also save on salary expenditures, it will accept that journeys may take a week or so longer than they do today.” Mr Rodseth said: “The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists. Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems.
“It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry. “This is why there is a lot of talk about the costs issue. We mustn’t forget that current rules and legislation all assume that there are people on board”, he said. In order to change the law, researchers will have to demonstrate that safety is as least as good as on existing vessels. For example, even if a sensor system detects an obstacle, the vessel has to be intelligent enough to process the information in order to avoid a collision. The researchers believe that developments such as this will emerge gradually and there will be a transition phase during which it will be safe for crews to sleep at night with the bridge unmanned.
Sintef has invested NOK 12mn of its own funds in a project it has called Seatonomy. MUNIN is one of four projects with the aim of identifying problems and developing methods and tools to provide safe and cost-effective autonomous systems. The German research institute Fraunhofer is heading the MUNIN project.