Boats have traded from the wharves lining Trondheim’s Nidelva river (pictured above) for most of the city’s millennium-long life. But the river’s colourful wooden warehouses are now obsolete and the Nidelva too narrow for commercial use. Over centuries, merchant vessels have been getting bigger and more automated, allowing fewer mariners to ship more cargo.
It is possible that the next decade or two could see those remaining human mariners left on the shore, replaced by ships steered by software. In a modern section of harbour a mile north of the Nidelva’s historic wharves, you might find Ocean Space Drone 1 and 2 (pictured below), looking like small yacht hulls without masts.
These two experimental autonomous boats, built by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime, are used by Trondheim’s Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and not-for-profit research organisation Sintef.
Norway already has highly automated vessels in general use. In 2018, ferry operator Fjord1 introduced two new boats, Gloppefjord and Eidesfjord, to cross the mile-wide stretch of water between Anda and Lote that joins the E39 highway in western Norway. An automated system built by Kongsberg directs them for most of each crossing, although a captain carries out dockings and can take control at any time.
Kongsberg is also working with Norwegian fertiliser company Yara to launch an autonomous container vessel, Yara Birkeland, which will move products from a plant in Porsgrunn, south-west of Oslo, to the ports of Brevik and Larvik a few miles further west.
The NOK250m (£22m) ship, the launch of which has been pushed back from 2018 to 2020, will start with human crew, then move to full autonomy by 2022. A couple of years later, grocery wholesaler company Asko plans to start running two autonomous ferries across the Oslo fjord south of the capital.
The three projects share a selling point – environmental efficiency, not autonomy. All the vessels are powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels and the freight boats will reduce the need for road transport, with the Yara Birkeland expected to replace 40,000 lorry trips every year.
“Autonomy is just a tool to make this electrified, emission-free system work,” says Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, a senior research scientist at Sintef and general manager of the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships.
As well as its famously wiggly coastline, Norway is a world leader in decarbonising its transport. Electric and hybrid cars made up 39.2% of 2017 sales, compared with 1.7% in the UK and 6.3% in Sweden, which had the second-highest proportion of the 20 countries tracked by the International Energy Agency.
The Norwegian government offers funding, with the Yara Birkeland receiving NOK113.6 and the Asko scheme NOK119m from Enova, a state agency that invests in carbon emission-cutting work. And in both projects, electric autonomous vessels will be part of new integrated transport systems, rather than replacing existing ships.
Rødseth sees significant potential for fully autonomous vessels along Norway’s coast, such as to provide on-demand ferries on short routes that give the country’s numerous lightly populated islands a few services a day. Rather than having to wait hours or until morning, a driver or passenger could request a trip like a passenger lift: “It’s much cheaper than building a bridge,” he says.
It should be easier to operate autonomous vessels near shorelines within range of land-based mobile data networks and human technicians when things go wrong, and in many cases only having to deal with one country’s regulations. But what about farther out? Rødseth says small unmanned vessels are already used for research, hydrographic mapping and military applications, such as countermining. The big question is whether intercontinental freight ships could follow suit.
Rødseth says that what might seem like a major stumbling block – physical security – could actually be an advantage. Today’s pirates generally attack smaller ships, and if they target larger ones, they do so to ransom the crew – and there wouldn’t be one. “Also, at least in open water, it would be very difficult to steal unmanned ships as there are no manual controls,” he adds.
Containerisation stoked globalisation
A much bigger problem is that intercontinental shipping is already very efficient. Some writers believe that the introduction of standard-sized containers that could move from lorries to ships – first carried by the Ideal-X from Newark to Houston in April 1956 – enabled economic globalisation. It certainly greatly reduced the number of people working in ports, with the stevedores who loaded and unloaded ships replaced by crane operators – roles that are now being carried out remotely in some ports.
It also caused many cities to scrap crowded urban docks in favour of huge new container-friendly ones downstream. The tiny port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, whose owners struck a 1966 deal with US container pioneer Sea-Land Service, grew to become the UK’s largest container port at the expense of east London, whose docking work collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After standing in for the ruins of Huế in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket, and in common with similar urban areas around the world, London’s derelict docks have been redeveloped as its second financial centre.
Meanwhile, the ships using the new ports continue to grow. The world’s highest-capacity ship, the 400m long OOCL Hong Kong, built by Samsung Heavy Industries, can transport 21,413 standard containers with a crew of just 22. It travels from Shanghai to European ports, taking 29 days to reach Felixstowe.
Burt a slow boat from China is not suitable for everything, and Adriana Diener-Veinott, global lead for freight and logistics services at consultancy Accenture, thinks autonomy could play a part in restructuring the shipping industry.
Increasingly, consumers want products to be customised or rapidly delivered to keep up with the latest trends. “That’s going to mean a different way of manufacturing and distributing, closer to the consumer,” she says, and autonomous vessels could provide some of the faster point-to-point deliveries that this requires.
Cheap labour still cheap
But while wages may be a significant element of maritime costs in high-wage countries such as Norway, this is not true on the high seas. “Labour at sea is already incredibly cheap,” says Victor Figueroa, a strategic researcher for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global union based in London.
Mariners are typically paid about US$400 a month (£310), with many hailing from the Philippines, where average annual earnings in 2016 were US$257. For long-haul shipping lines, there are easier ways to save money than removing all of these relatively poorly paid mariners, namely increasing the size of ships and saving fuel by travelling relatively slowly – both of which they have done.
Instead, automation looks likely to involve moving specific roles from ship to shore. “Paradoxically, the people you can squeeze most are captains, who are paid more,” says Figueroa. Some companies already have on-shore captains who make decisions on changing routes to save fuel, instructing cheaper and less experienced mariners on ships.
Read more about autonomous transport
- What is an autonomous ship?
- Transportation and logistics companies are eyeing an ever-expanding role for AI in their products and services, ranging from safer cars to prompter shipments.
- Spanish authorities ready roads for autonomous vehicles.
In general, partial rather than full automation looks more likely for ocean-going ships. ABB Marine and Ports already offers assisted docking technology, with its first fully automatic docking system due next year. Mikko Lepistö, the company’s head of digital automation, says it is working to automate navigation and situational awareness, including collision avoidance, as well as maintenance of propulsion systems.
In many cases, its systems will assist and advise rather than replace people outright. “We don’t see a sudden leap to autonomy, but a gradual process,” he says.
Such systems will mean ships generating and sending far more data, something that nascent satellite network OneWeb hopes to carry. It has started launching a constellation of 650 low-orbit satellites which, when complete in 2021, should provide 10 times the bandwidth and one-tenth of the latency of geostationary ones.
Carole Plessy, head of maritime product development for the company, says the aim is a “fibre-like experience” at sea. Unlike the geostationary orbit above the equator, OneWeb will provide strong coverage of the polar regions – useful given the development of autonomy in Scandinavia, and the advent of Asia to Europe routes in the Arctic Circle allowed by melting sea ice.
Plessy says the company’s maritime service will allow equipment manufacturers to monitor and help maintain on-ship equipment remotely, in the fashion of aeroplane engine manufacturers. At present, diagnostic software alerts captains about engine problems, but if the crew cannot solve these, an unscheduled port stop and an expensive trip for a specialist engineer may result. Remote monitoring could allow such specialists to advise crew at sea, as well as conduct preventative work.
High-bandwidth connectivity could also help ships comply with tougher regulations. They are already required to carry voyage data recorders, the maritime equivalent of aircraft black boxes which retain data and voice recordings. If this data could be transferred digitally, it could be used to demonstrate compliance with regulations on carbon emissions and pollution.
Live data increases transparency
Releasing more information could have wider benefits. Monica Truelsch, director of solutions, strategy and product marketing at Infor Nexus, says the GPS location data currently generated by ships is not accurate enough to show whether the vessel is waiting to dock or has done so. Cargo owners, which Infor GT Nexus provides with data services, could use live data from ships on docking and unloading to gain better estimates of when their goods would arrive.
“From the shipper’s standpoint, autonomous vessels are enormously interesting because of the transparency that would come with them,” says Truelsch.
Ioannis Martinos, chief executive of Signal Ocean, worked on autonomy in helicopters as a student before joining his family’s shipping business, then founding his own, which provides predictions on the availability of shipping on different routes.
He thinks it possible that remote control could allow ships’ bridges to move away from round-the-clock operation, with automation in certain circumstances and at certain times, allowing for fewer officers and ships steered by software, possibly cutting fuel use by about 15% while maintaining current speeds.
But he returns to the fact that such ships have already reduced crew levels while increasing in size. “Different levels of autonomy will just be more dots in that storyline,” he says. “If you took the entire supply chain and look at the different parts technology is going to influence, maybe the less sexy answer is that it will improve every part of the supply chain in a homogeneous way.”
More automation, and the flood of associated information it generates, will be important in achieving this. But although fully autonomous vessels will soon be possible, economic arguments may keep humans on board for a while yet.