Overcoming the challenges of autonomous vessels

Adding automation into the mix presents its own set of design challenges and opportunities Adding automation into the mix presents its own set of design challenges and opportunities
Industry Database

A recently published article by The Shipowner’s Club discusses some of the key issues that could face automated ships of the future from a design perspective.

In the article, Keir Gravil, a naval architect at Frazer-Nash Consultancy in Bristol, UK, said that it’s a truth recognised by many industries that the future of transportation lies with greater automation.

“[But] adding automation into the mix presents its own set of design challenges and opportunities, and will require significant cooperation between ship owners, ship builders, classification societies, underwriters and P&I Clubs," he said.

Crewless ships

Mr Gravil warned that ship automation will not happen overnight, it will be a gradual change, but many are predicting crewless ships sailing the oceans in the future.

He said that obvious benefit to increasing automation is the reduction in operational crew numbers reducing the need for accommodation and crew welfare systems.

Internal layouts could be optimised, with more compact systems. All these could provide benefits in terms of a reduction in operating costs, including fuel.

But a drawback could be seen from a survivability perspective, standards underpinning the integrity of a damaged ship may need to be revisited because no crew available to respond to emergencies such as fire or flood.

Ship systems

Mr Gravil said that humans are capable of the complex decision making and logic required to keep the entire ship safe and protected from machinery failures.

So, there would be a need for greater redundancy with no crew a failed piece of equipment could not be fixed instantly.

Ship operators might also start to demand higher levels of reliability from their equipment suppliers, to ensure continued vessel operation.

Modularity may become a key requirement, enabling a ‘plug-and-play’ approach, so faulty equipment can be removed and quickly replaced in port.

Command and control

Perhaps the biggest technical hurdle Mr Gravil said, is the command and control of ships globally.

Some industry players are already envisaging ships operated remotely from land-based control rooms, but remote operation has significant challenges, both technical and financial.

Another major challenge for designers and operators is that of data. Handling, communicating and protecting large amounts of data will be of huge importance in the age of the fully automated ship.

The safety of autonomous control systems is also an area requiring significant consideration. Essential systems will have to achieve very rigorous testing, commissioning and operation standards.

Mr Gravil said that the final hurdle, and likely the most onerous, is that of trust. Getting a ship to sail without a master and crew will likely prove to be the industry’s greatest challenge Mr Gravil concluded.

Adapted from an original article published by The Shipowners Club

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