TRONDHEIM — First there were driverless cars. Soon, there will also be boats that can sail without a captain. The Norwegian company Kongsberg officially started this technological endeavor this past summer when it announced the development of a prototype freighter, which is scheduled to be tested next year. Completely electronic, this container ship will shuttle between Porsgrunn, south of Oslo, and the ports of Brevik and Larvik to transport fertilizer from the manufacturer Yara to the North Sea. “Every day, more than 100 diesel trucks travel from our factory towards these two ports, which makes 40,000 trips per year and an equivalent amount of pollution which we can avoid,” says the organization’s president Svein Tore Holsether in a press release.

Baptized the Yara Birkeland (in homage to the physician Kristian Birkeland, who discovered the origin of the Aurora Borealis), this shuttle will run 24/7 all year round. Numerous sensors will help guide it and preempt obstacles. The company anticipates a carbon dioxide reduction of 678 tonnes per year. But this environmental engagement comes at a price: $25 million in investment, three times the price of a normal cargo ship of the same capacity.

The maritime industry sees only advantages to engaging in this field.

This transport ship is currently the only one of its kind but other teams around the world are working on this topic. “The technology is ready,” says Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation at Rolls-Royce. In an official report on his vision for “smart boats” (“Remote and Autonomous Ships. The next step”), the motor manufacturer predicts that the first large autonomous cargo ships will set sail by 2020.

Steering from a distance

These automated boats will be remote-controlled by networks of sensors made of cameras, radars, infrared systems, GPS and sonars, which will survey maritime space both on the surface and underwater. The networks will be linked permanently via satellite to control rooms equipped with virtual reality simulators displaying the view from the ships’ bridge. Captains will supervise the routes to ensure smooth proceedings. “These ships navigate by sending their position and speed to the control center. The system will be able to identify not only other ships crossing their path but also icebergs and all other forms of obstacles. The captains will then be able to remotely supervise multiple ships at the same time,” says the group.

Their approach is not only theoretical. Partnered with maritime transport companies Finferries and ESL Shipping, Finland’s Tampere University of Technology and the analyst team Brighthouse Intelligence, Rolls-Royce is currently investing 6.6 million euros ($7.9 million) in a life-size test — the Awaa project — to explore the economic, social and legal factors necessary to the production of future autonomous ships.

The preliminary sector specifications will permit other teams to accelerate their pace. For example, the Bourbon group (the global number two company in offshore services) announced this past summer that it will rejoin the project for the offshore automated ship Hrönn, commissioned by the British group Automated Ships in November 2016. The team decided to invest in markets for petroleum prospecting, offshore wind power, aquaculture and hydrography, which demand resources for surveillance, security and food supply. Their ship will be a single-hulled steel vessel, 37 meters long. Testing will take place in the Trondheim fjord, where the Norwegian government authorized trials of this nature in relatively protected aquatic environments.

The maritime industry sees only advantages to engaging in this field. The security of maritime transport could be reinforced in a sector where, according to the insurance company Allianz, between 75% and 96% of losses at sea are due to human error. Without a crew, these ships could be optimized for carrying more containers and goods, while economizing the cost of labor. BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, is looking further into this possibility. The company estimates that the deployment of automated fleets would save the global maritime industry $86 billion per year, and is now working to have all its annual transport — about 1,500 trips to transport 250 million tonnes of iron ore, copper and coal — on automated ships within a decade.

The technology is ready.

The military is just as partial to automation. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), the American naval research bureau, is working to “drone-ify” surveillance boats in the style of aerial drones. Its teams have developed an automated coordination kit, Caracas (“Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command And Sensing”), that armies can install on request in fleets of small boats. During a live demonstration in the fall of 2016, ONR presented a small fleet of four pneumatic ships capable of not only spotting an intruding ship in a determined maritime zone, but also of choosing some to analyze the threat and, if necessary, escort it outside the zone.

If the technology for guidance and supervision are more or less mastered, standing up to piracy, both physical and informational, will be another matter. Rolls-Royce imagines ships with curved sides to prevent boarding and ones without ladders, while its partners are studying solutions in cyber-security, including satellite control with a scope of up to 3,500 nautical miles.

There still remains the social question: a study done by the Bank of England in 2015 estimates that the current wave of maritime automatization could leave 15 million employees out of work.


See more from Tech / Science here