When it comes to autonomous ships, ships sailing across the oceans are often the first to come to mind. The world’s first autonomous ferry service was launched in Finland in early December, when the road ferry Falco made its first independent trip between Parainen and Nauvo. The return journey was remotely steered from Turku. Falco is jointly operated by the state-owned Finferries and Rolls-Royce.
However, it will still take a great deal of time and work before unmanned ocean-going vessels become reality. The development of autonomous technology for ocean traffic is moving towards sensory-augmented situational awareness technology, which will further enhance safety. Before a vessel can be made capable of remotely controlled or unmanned voyages, the intelligent situational awareness of the vessel’s technology must be developed one sub-area at a time.
“It is worth moving away from the prejudices related to unmanned ships and to look instead at how modern ship traffic can be made safer by technology”, says Saul Eloranta, senior vice president of technology management and innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine.
Although self-driving cars have not yet come on the market, technology has made many contributions to the safety of road traffic, for example with cruise control or lane departure warning systems. At the moment, relatively little use is made of this type of environment-monitoring technology in maritime transport. Situational awareness is mainly based on electronic nautical charts, radar and the human senses. With the advancement of technology, Eloranta believes that the level of safety will increase significantly.
“Sensor technology can be used to build various kinds of alarm systems. Artificial intelligence predicts where ships are likely to go and what the maritime traffic situation is – this is the same sort of information on maritime traffic safety provided by the Vessel Traffic Service to the authorities in carrying out rescues at marine accident sites each year”, says Eloranta as an example.
It is worth moving away from the prejudices related to unmanned ships and to look instead at how modern ship traffic can be made safer by technology.
Eloranta mentions a number of environmental benefits that would result from making more extensive use of technology in traditional shipping.
Ship speed has a major impact on fuel consumption. Reducing the speed by ten percent can save 30 percent on fuel costs. However, slow steaming, as it is called, is often not cost-effective.
“The optimum speed depends on the amount of other running costs. Travelling very slowly saves on fuel, but salary costs and capital costs are higher. An unmanned ship could travel at a speed below its optimum speed, resulting in a clear environmental benefit in terms of fuel economy”.
The digitalisation of logistics also creates new opportunities. At present, there are a huge number of shipping companies operating on the seas whose logistical systems are incompatible with each other, and many ships are often sailing with very little cargo.
“These companies are to all intents and purposes operating in isolation from one another. With platform-based capacity allocation, it would be easier to load cargo bound for the same destination on the one ship, so that ships are sailing with a full cargo”.
Autonomous vessels would also make it possible to use different operating modes for the entire transportation process. Eloranta points out that maritime emissions must also be considered from the perspective of land transportation.
“Autonomy could make it possible to make ships slightly smaller than at present. In the future, there will be no need to build mega-ports for ship operations, as is the case nowadays, since it will be possible to load ships faster and distribute the cargo more intelligently. This will mean that some cargo need not be transported by lorry or train, as the cargo can instead be transported by sea to smaller ports closer to the destination”.
Eloranta also raises the issue of electric power:
“In Norway, almost all new shore equipment is zero-emission and battery-powered. This is what Finland should also be aiming for”.
Thanks to the change, Rolls-Royce has also been able to take over the operation of the Norwegian ferry service.
“We have provided an autocrossing system for almost all ferries. This is based on an autopilot system, but in addition to controlling direction it also adjusts the engine power. This is supported by an autodock system, which enables the ship to leave the quay by itself. Another aspect of this autonomy is that a ship near the dock will change the system from autocrossing to autodock mode. However, these ships will still not be able to travel independently, and will have a crew to handle the steering tasks that arise in normal maritime traffic”.