Regulations for autonomous and remote-control vessels need to catch up with the technology, said a panel of experts during Riviera Maritime Media’s Dynamic positioning in the unmanned vessel space webinar
The panel agreed technology development for remotely controlling crewless vessels was accelerating leaving regulators, such as IMO, behind.
This panel consisted of DNV technical responsible for ship systems and components in maritime Odd Magne Nesvåg, Ocean Infinity senior business development manager Michael King, International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) technical adviser for marine Richard Purser and IMC technical adviser Andre Rose.
Mr King said unmanned surface vessels (USVs) offer cost savings, can help reduce fuel consumption and emissions and will play a key role in the offshore industry in the future.
While small USVs have been used for remote surveys, larger USVs will have dynamic positioning (DP) systems for safe operations near other offshore structures.
“There is genuine interest in DP USVs,” said Mr King. “They will be increasingly used in the offshore industry where DP is required. The level of technology has developed so uncrewed DP vessels will be operating in the next year or two.”
Ocean Infinity is building its Armada fleet of 17 unmanned vessels between 21 m and 78 m in overall length for offshore operations including survey, search and rescue, oil spill response and supply logistics.
It is also building two remote control centres, one in Southampton, UK and the other in Austin, Texas. From these, masters will remotely control USVs for their multiple operations.
“Our vessels will have DP,” said Mr King. “They will have hybrid propulsion with batteries for sustainable operations. The first vessel will be launched for trials in Europe before deployment in Q2 2022.”
Mr Purser said operators such as Ocean Infinity are demonstrating how far USV technology has advanced.
“The genie is out of the bottle and there is large-scale acceptance,” he said. “There has been rapid technology spread… this is at the tip of the iceberg. When operators of cargo and container ships start looking at this, there will be exponential growth.”
He said this growth will leave regulatory authorities needing to change rules and guidance. “Law makers will lag behind technology and will need input from industry bodies and vessel operators to keep up and to amend guidance and regulations. Class societies are trying to get ahead of the game as we move forward.”
Mr Nesvåg said classification societies were working to provide certification and verification of autonomous and remote-control vessel technologies. “We need to ensure new technology is fit for purpose and there needs to be standards.”
He said rules and regulations are not set to enable USVs, but flag states may grant exemptions. “And these exemptions will require an assurance case.”
These involve concept, technology or system qualifications. “To obtain approval from the maritime authorities of novel concepts which challenge existing statutory regulations,” said Mr Nesvåg.
Or “for verification of a safe implementation of novel (use of) technologies in autonomous and/or remotely controlled vessel functions.”
Mr Rose said there would be challenges to implementing these disruptive technologies safely in the offshore industry. “We do not compromise safety,” he said. There will be changes in manpower, working arrangements and capabilities.
“Types of work will alter and there will be different competencies and training,” said Mr Rose.
“Regulators are lagging behind the technology, but it is no one’s fault. We need to maintain pressure for sensible regulations and IMCA will come up with guidance and best practice from the leaders of this technology,” he explained.
“We are at an exciting place. There will be opportunities and huge growth. We are looking forward to future years.”
During the webinar, held on 10 September as part of Riviera’s Offshore Energy Webinar Week, attendees were asked a series of poll questions for their opinions on USV technologies and related issues.
In one poll, they were asked whether regulations and certifications for DP systems should be altered to reflect modern technology. There was overwhelming agreement for this as 39% strongly agreed, 52% agreed, and just 7% disagreed and 2% strongly disagreed.
Attendees were asked when they thought fully autonomous vessels would become mainstream in the maritime industry. Just 16% said within the next five years and 29% thought within 10 years. 32% voted for more than 10 years and 23% thought they would only be a niche play at best. None thought they would be overtaken by other technologies and approaches.
Delegates were then asked what they saw as the biggest challenge to implementing autonomous vessels in the general marine industry. 34% voted for regulation, 31% for safety concerns, 27% for confidence in new technology and 8% for other challenges.
On the other hand, they were asked what they considered to be the biggest advantage of using USV’s in offshore energy fields. To which, 56% said operational costs, 25% reduced energy requirements and cleaner fuels, 16% safety and 3% other.
In another poll, they were asked, Which operational concept will be the standout concept and operational within the next 1-3 years? 41% of those responding attendees thought it would be reduced manning due to autonomous function and/or remote operational support.
Another 22% voted for manned vessels, but with advanced decision support, 14% said unmanned vessels remotely controlled and 13% voted for manned vessels where bridges could be unmanned periodically, then 10% thought it would be unmanned vessels mainly autonomous, and normally only remotely supervised.
In another poll, 62% of respondents thought 500-m zone regulations for DP vessels is fit for purpose when considering smaller, lighter and less impactful remotely operated vessels.
On Riviera’s Dynamic positioning in the unmanned vessel space webinar panel were (left to right) DNV technical responsible for ship systems and components in maritime Odd Magne Nesvåg, Ocean Infinity senior business development manager Michael King, International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) technical adviser for marine Richard Purser and IMC technical adviser Andre Rose