Autonomous vessels will not be here any time soon, says North P&I Club

Autonomous vessels will not be here any time soon, says North P&I Club

Ocean-going vessels will not operate autonomously or in an unmanned configuration any time soon, but vessels will use technology such as sensors and artificial intelligence to support on board navigation officers, claims the North P&I Club.

The North P&I Club believes that remote controlled, unmanned, automated, and autonomous mean different things when describing shipping operations. Remote control of vessels does not necessarily mean they will be unmanned, or autonomous systems could be used but as a tool to support on-board manning.

Vessels will be categorised according to their level of autonomous operation. A categorisation system has bene developed by Lloyd’s Register, based on the level of on-board manning, human oversight and intervention, and the level of autonomous decision-making on board.

Courtesy of the North P&I Club

According to the North P&I Club, the momentum for autonomous technologies will continue to gather momentum over the next few years. However, the rate of this will depend on the success of early projects, such as the success of the Yara Birkeland, which is expected to enter into service in 2018 under manned remote operation. If all goes well, the vessel will begin unmanned remote operation in 2019 and then, according to Kongsberg, autonomous operation in 2020. Rolls-Royce also expects to deliver unmanned vessels by 2025, with the aim for fully autonomous ships to be operating by 2035.

The Yara Birkeland, courtesy of Kongsberg

The North P&I Club says that most of the focus on developing remote, manned and unmanned vessels, has been on collision avoidance. While there are advanced sensor technologies out there, there are other challenges that will make the delivery of autonomous an unmanned vessels less than straightforward. According to the insurer, the decision-making abilities of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence (AI) will need to be improved in order to ensure they are capable of complex decision-making required to control and operate a vessel throughout its voyage.

The available of satellite connectivity is another challenge. While connectivity between ship and shore is constantly improving, the data exchange between ship and shore for remote controlled and autonomous vessels is expected to be massive, according to the P&I Club. Bandwidth capabilities are not yet able to cope with the demands of such operations, but this is constantly improving and may be able to meet the demands in the future.

The seafarer will still play a large role in unmanned operations. The North P&I Club points out that while the industry is often quick to blame accidents on human error, there are also a large number of near-incidents that have been prevented thanks to human intervention. In addition, the human element will not be eliminated on an unmanned vessel, it will just shift to somewhere else.

One of the biggest challenges is the regulation that governs the operation of unmanned and autonomous ships. At the moment there are no IMO regulations in place for this and they are largely being undertaken by countries interested in pushing autonomous and unmanned vessels. Denmark and Norway are two examples where unmanned and autonomous operations have been trialled. The Club says that even where regulations have been created, there will still be significant challenges in enforcing them and for this reason it is likely that in the short-term remote and autonomous vessels operations will be restricted to domestic trading only.

The lack of clarity on legislation has an impact on the provision of insurance for unmanned or autonomous vessels. The North P&I Club says it is continuing to monitor the development of this technology, with Loss Prevention taking an active role in various working groups.