The day in which unmanned “ghost ships” ply the seas laden with cargo is fast approaching. But don’t expect the drone vessels to be flying a U.S. flag.
The United States is not among the global hotspots where a revolution in autonomous commercial shipping is unfolding. One needs to look to places like Norway, Finland, Singapore and China to observe the competition for unmanned shipping.
A shipyard in Norway will soon begin building a 237-foot battery-powered electric container ship that will operate with nary a sailor aboard by 2020.
Announcement of that project and several others over the past year have rippled through maritime circles worldwide.
Finland is looking at prototypes for an autonomous ferry. China has set aside a 225-square-mile ocean area to test crewless ships. And Japanese shipping lines have formed a consortium with the goal of having 250 remote-control cargo ships by 2025.
U.S. shipping firms are not even in the game.
“We, the U.S., are behind,” said Deputy Administrator Richard Balzano of the U.S. Maritime Administration, the arm of the Transportation department that deals with shipping. American commercial shipping firms are “on life support.”
“Our fleets are aging out. We’re not globally competitive like, say, the Chinese. Our tax systems, our standards of living, our pay rates, our union labor costs, these things all drive us to be less than competitive,” Balzano said.
Battered by foreign competition, U.S. shipping lines run a total of 81 ocean-going vessels that conduct international trade, the lowest number in modern times, Balzano said.
Other factors that have hindered the commercial shipping industry’s move toward autonomy include a lack of designated open-water areas to conduct testing, sea lanes that are heavily transited, and regulatory obstacles.
The U.S. isn’t losing the race because a lack of technological know-how. In fact, U.S. technology in autonomous systems is world beating – but it’s largely confined to the military. Earlier this year, the Navy took control of a 132-foot sensor-rich unmanned vessel, dubbed Sea Hunter, that can remain away from port for months at a time. Other anti-submarine robot ships are on order.
Pribyl estimated that U.S. commercial shipping interests lag at least five years behind some of their foreign counterparts in moving toward crewless commercial vessels.
“The U.S. commercial maritime industry is somewhat conservative in adopting new technology, and so there’s a bit of wait-and-see as to what’s happening in Europe,” Pribyl said.
Interest is awakening in Silicon Valley — to work with European firms. Six months ago, Google partnered with the British engine maker Rolls-Royce to develop machine intelligence software to help make autonomous ships a reality. In January, Rolls-Royce opened a state-of-the-art research facility in Turku, Finland, to focus on autonomous shipping.
Proponents say unmanned ships could be safer and more environmentally friendly. But the real driver is a desire to lower costs.
“In five to 10 years, they are going to start pulling people off of the ships.... The largest cost to operate a vessel is the people. You have to feed them. You have to train them. You have to have facilities on board for them. It costs a lot of money,” said Tim Barton, maritime chief engineer at Leidos, a U.S. defense company in Reston, Virginia, that helped develop the Sea Hunter.
Without crews, ships have no need for kitchens, sleeping quarters, sick bays, recreational facilities and plumbing, making more room for cargo.
The Norwegian drone vessel that will be the world’s first autonomous ship is a joint project between YARA, a fertilizer conglomerate, and Kongsberg Maritime, an offshoot of a defense business. Once the ship, christened YARA Birkeland, enters autonomous operation, toting up to 120 20-foot containers per journey, it will pull congestion off Norwegian highways.
“They are replacing 40,000 truck journeys per year between their factory and their two export ports,” said Peter Due, director of autonomy at Kongsberg Maritime.
The factory is in Heroya, site of a large industrial park. The crewless drone vessel will haul fertilizer along a fjord to ports in Brevik and Larvik, a journey of up to 30 nautical miles through crowded waters.
No longer will trucks pass through high-density areas with schools, leaving “emissions, dust, sound and traffic safety (concerns),” Due said.
Such coastal routes are where experts see the biggest near-term opening for autonomous vessels. By remaining in the territorial waters of a single nation, shipping lines don’t have to deal with a vacuum of international regulation regarding autonomous ships.
In a second project, Kongsberg Maritime has developed a prototype for an ocean-going light-duty utility ship, dubbed the Hronn, that could take supplies to North Sea oil rigs without a crew aboard.
“One of the success factors that make Norway a leader in this is that we are a small nation, 5.3 million people. It’s very, very easy to get to decision makers. We’re on a first name basis with our prime minister,” Due said.
Autonomy is farther off for large, ocean-going ships. Those vessels already have comparatively small crews, and a fraction of the labor costs of coastal vessels, which can eat up a third or more of operating expenses, Due said.
Bigger ships will incorporate automation more slowly.
“I don’t think you’ll see … an unmanned oil tanker for quite a while,” said Jan Hagen Andersen, business development manager for the Houston office of DNV GL, a global adviser and registrar to the maritime industry.
But Andersen said the autonomy revolution is coming fast in other corners of shipping.
“If you’d asked the maritime industry four or five years ago about autonomy or unmanned vessels, we would’ve said, no, that’s all science fiction,” Andersen said. “But I think today you see real commercial projects that are being developed.”
In some functions, crewless boats make particular sense, such as fireboats that must get near burning ships and can be operated remotely, and tugboats, experts said.
Autonomous ships also could sidestep the human error that Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a marine risk firm, estimates cause 75 percent to 96 percent of marine accidents.
“Avoidance or reduction of human error is a significant element” of the move toward autonomous shipping, Mark Johnson, a former Royal Navy commander now at the Shipping Group of law firm Reed Smith in London. “Insurers do see benefit in it.”
Autonomous vessels will be cheaper to build, and more energy efficient. If seized by pirates, there is no crew held hostage to use as leverage for ransom. But they do have down sides. No immediate repairs are possible on an unmanned ship.
“If you were to lose the remote-control link, what happens to the vessel?” Johnson asked, saying such questions are yet to be worked out in international convention.
The future of many mariners is to have dry shoes, confined to control rooms at shipping lines, monitoring data from unmanned cargo vessels thousands of miles away.
“They can’t fight it. It’s coming and they know it,” Balzano said.