Autonomy preparations

Caption: Auto call: ports need to be ready for autonomous ships, like the Yara Birkeland. Credit: Kongsberg/Ørnulf Rødseth Caption: Auto call: ports need to be ready for autonomous ships, like the Yara Birkeland. Credit: Kongsberg/Ørnulf Rødseth
Industry Database

Valenciaport Foundation’s Alexandre Sánchez Pérez and Jonas Mendes Constante highlight questions that port authority managers should be asking about autonomous ships.

The European Commissioner for Transport announced last August that in the next work plan of the Horizon 2020 programme there will be a specific call dedicated to the implementation of autonomous vessels in real environments, which will finance projects with a budget of between E10-E20m.

The emergence of autonomous transport poses enormous challenges in terms of the management of critical infrastructures such as ports. Among some of the most obvious are the way in which unmanned vessels will berth and manoeuvre within port areas and how these vessels, in some cases without crew, will communicate with manned vessels and maritime traffic control centres, especially in those areas with high congestion and maritime traffic.

Given the speed of technological innovations and the complexity involved in the entry into operation of autonomous ships, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) announced last June its intention to carry out an exploratory study on the regulations needed to determine how best to introduce the operation of self-employed ships in a safe, secure and environmentally-sound manner. The study will address a wide range of issues such as human factor training, safety, security, the interaction of self-employed ships with ports, pilotage, response to incidents and protection of the marine environment.

Despite the above, many unknowns remain unresolved. For example, we wonder whether it will be obligatory for self-employed vessels to have a minimum number of crew on board in case of any incidents, how the ISPS code will be modified to articulate new security procedures in ports or how these vessels will prevent theft and pirate attacks in conflict zones. The way in which all these uncertainties are resolved could be decisive for the definitive implementation of this technology in maritime transport in 2020-2025.

Port authority challenge

In the same way that autonomous vessels represent a challenge for navigation and safety at sea, the possible arrival of this technology implies a challenge for port authorities due to the high amount of resources and investments that should foreseeably be undertaken in order to be able to attend and service this type of vessels on shore. Among others, we can foresee the following actions:

- Investments to develop Internet of Things platforms and thus enable the ship to communicate with other ‘intelligent objects’ in the port environment such as cranes, bridges, headlights, beacons, trucks or containers equipped with sensors and other devices.

- Investing in robust cyber security systems that enable secure, reliable data connectivity that is resilient to both malicious intervention and system failure. Cyber security is another major challenge for maritime transport as companies in the sector have already been affected by cyber attacks. If a hacker manages to manipulate an autonomous vessel the consequences could be lethal.

- Investments in technological systems that facilitate the approach of an autonomous vessel to the port as well as its docking and mooring at the quay. Regarding the latter, new systems of ‘automooring’ need to be consider in the medium term. These systems reduce manoeuvring time to seconds since a series of installed sensors allow the ship to be guided to the dock and quickly moored.

Another strategic issue concerns the current business model of shipping companies and their search for economies of scale. In this sense, if we bear in mind that the autonomous ship would allow a huge reduction in the costs of the voyage, we wonder whether it will still be appealing to build vessels of increasing size, or whether it will be more profitable to use smaller, autonomous vessels to transport the same volume of cargo? What, then, will happen with the hub and spoke model? This is a scenario that would demand a rethink of the investments that some ports and terminals are contemplating in the medium and short term.

The message is that port actors, especially the port authorities, need to follow this topic very closely. Recently, innovation cycles have got shorter and shorter and it is likely that autonomous ships will call at your port sooner than you expect. Be prepared.

Alexandre Sánchez Pérez and Jonas Mendes Constante are R&D project managers at Valenciaport Foundation.


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