Advances in technology will permit an increasing number of cargo ships to be piloted either autonomously or via remote controls in the future – eliminating the major cause of accidents at sea.
Shipping is every bit as important to global economy as it has ever been. Around 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea, in a market estimated to be worth more than $4trillion every year.
As with all modes of transport, particularly one with such a dominant international presence, sea travel comes with a level of risk. Ships can crash, catch fire, get lost, sink. According to insurance company Allianz, 94 ships were lost in maritime accidents in 2017.
What is perhaps less well-known is that there is a simple solution for such accidents: take the people out of the water.
Research has found that between 2005 and 2014, just under 50% of all ships that collided or sunk to the bottom of the ocean did so because of tired sailors that made mistakes.
The European Union (EU)-funded MUNIN project, which stands for Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, recently investigated the potential for ships to travel across seas without people on board, only admitting crews for the trickier movements when entering or leaving ports, or merging into busier water. The ship was controlled by systems on board the vessel and monitored by an onshore operator.
Writing up a report about the findings, with a particular focus on technical and legal elements of autonomous shipping, researchers Fraunhofer Centre for Marine Logistics and Services found that taking out humans was the most effective way of improving safety. Unmanned ships, free from fatigue issues, saw a decrease of collision and sinking risk “by around ten times” compared to manned shipping.
They added that a switch to unmanned ship designs would not automatically free ships from the risk of cyber attack, fire or engine break down, but they were confident that new systems – such as fire extinguishers in enclosed spaces – could have “very high resilience against such events”. In addition, they said that reductions in fuel consumption and decreased personnel costs could make the industry much more profitable and suited to particular routes, such as short-sea shipping.
Recent initiatives suggest the industry has taken such conclusions to heart. In December 2018, a team in San Diego, US, controlled a ship sailing just off the coast of Aberdeen in Scotland; Norwegian ferry Folgefonn has successfully tested docking and undocking using remote technology; and two Norwegian firms have collectively announced plans to build the world’s first electric and autonomous container ship by 2020.
The only problem? The long-term stability for current staff, given estimates that over half a million people are employed by the maritime industry in Europe alone. Perhaps they’ll have to be trained in remote control technology,
Amit Gudka and Hayden Wood
Amit Gudka and Hayden Wood
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