Mads Friis Sørensen says shipping does not need to go fully unmanned to benefit from emerging technologies
The unmanned autonomous ship may be the final goal, but there is a lot we can benefit from right here, right now.
With a drive among shipowners to investigate the new technology and opportunities it brings, it is already time to harvest the first low-hanging fruit grown in the backyard of the fully autonomous unmanned vessel.
What surprised me when I was heading a team assigned to define and design the necessary systems to realise a fully autonomous ship, was how many systems we defined which could be installed today on board conventional vessels. Using these systems now would bring value to shipowners and improve safety and performance.
When examining these systems, we had to deal with the inadequacies seafarers face today when calling at a port or performing open sea transitions.
Many of the solutions to these challenges are already applicable to ship operations and could help navigators and masters reduce their workload and bring better situational awareness.
By addressing the interactions between the merchant ship and its surroundings, new ways to reduce risks using remote operation, AI, machine learning and sensors revealed great potential. This could reduce risks and accidents in normal operations, benefiting the current merchant fleet and workboat operators.
Even though some manufacturing companies have set the final goal to be the fully unmanned autonomous vessel, it does not mean we have to wait for Yara Birkeland and similar projects to be fully finalised and in operation before harvesting the benefits of the developments. I believe this is also the reason Wilhelmsen joined forces with Kongsberg to set up Massterly. Wilhelmsen can identify solutions and technology which can be implemented in the short term and enrich their current fleet and future newbuildings.
In the same way, NYK and other Japanese owners have approached maritime manufacturers and established co-operation to explore the technology and identify areas where a higher degree of automation or even autonomous operation can be applied.
NYK has established a technical division focused on applying new technologies and creating solutions, which may give them a competitive edge over their competitors. But, we should not forget that an experienced captain is worth his weight worth in gold.
Now we have added new technology as a driver to improve competition, and through the derived products realised through autonomous ship research and development we have added to the competitive edge.
Mads Friis Sørensen has more than 20 years of experience in bridge technology and deck officer training. He is co-founder of SeaSearch.dk and was senior project manager with Wärtsilä SAM Electronics in charge of developing autonomous vessel technology up to November 2018. He has been a chief advisor to the Danish Maritime Authority and spent 19 years with Furuno Europe, including business development manager for the Furuno INS training centre.