Strange future

New shape: autonomous vessels could reshape the pattern of port calls. Credit: Rolls-Royce
New shape: autonomous vessels could reshape the pattern of port calls. Credit: Rolls-Royce
Throughput: DNV GL's ReVolt Project shows how autonomous, electrified coastal vessels could tick on like a conveyor belt
Throughput: DNV GL's ReVolt Project shows how autonomous, electrified coastal vessels could tick on like a conveyor belt
Techno gain: software savvy ports will win out over deeper draft ports in attracting a new generation of ships
Techno gain: software savvy ports will win out over deeper draft ports in attracting a new generation of ships
“An autonomous ship can offer efficiency - without those so-called, expensive economies of scale,” Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce
“An autonomous ship can offer efficiency - without those so-called, expensive economies of scale,” Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce
Caption: “The whole issue of responsibility is going to be very interesting for the new technology,” Jan Willem Verkiel, Port of Rotterdam
Caption: “The whole issue of responsibility is going to be very interesting for the new technology,” Jan Willem Verkiel, Port of Rotterdam

The rise of unmanned vessels and low-cost smart shipping could revolutionise ports, writes Stevie Knight

Today’s cargo handling industry doesn’t look much different to that of 10, or even 20 years ago. Sure, assets – ships, cranes, ports – are larger, but the actual handling process is by-and-large the same. However, the evolution of the container to bigger hubs on bigger vessels, requiring bigger cranes, bigger quays and deeper water has proved to be “a very costly business for those trying to keep pace,” says Oskar Levander of Rolls-Royce.

But according to Mr Levander, “an autonomous ship can offer efficiency – without those so-called, expensive economies of scale”.

If, as he suggests, you strip out the life support systems and even the bridge, the result is a lighter, more economical ship. Then add a modular design, pre-tested elements coming straight from the factory and the end product “will be significantly cheaper than the vessels of today” he explains, undermining the business case for the Goliaths of recent years.

According to his calculations, “five of these hyper-efficient, smaller vessels on direct calls could undercut one big ship taking the same amount of cargo... and making the whole journey end-to-end, it will still, in a lot of cases, prove quicker than going through a hub”.

More to the point for the terminals, smaller vessels won’t demand the long reach cranes or deeper drafts. Mr Levander predicts that it may well force a change in the calls, rather like the low-cost airlines did ten years ago,” he explains. “If you remember, these new companies didn’t go to the big airports – they went to their neighbours who were keener to get the business.”

Conveyor belts

It’s a challenging view, but he’s not alone in believing it could spark a revolution. “There’s been a lot of interest in the idea,” says Bjørn-Johan Vartdal of DNV GL. He adds that autonomous vessels might help quicken another element – by enabling a slowdown. “Combining autonomy with electrification means you can make shortsea or inland transport move a lot more slowly than crew would normally accept - allowing for the use of pure electric or plug-in ships.” Operations would tick along “like a conveyor belt”.

It’s an idea that DNV GL has been playing around with under its ReVolt project: this predicts enough savings over diesel-driven vessels (more than $1m a year per ship) to pull traffic from the roads.

“Of course, ports will have to accommodate the infrastructure, things like recharging points on the quay,” he explains, but it could be attractive: after all the metronome-like momentum will help regulate the flow of cargo – and make it stick.

However, not all agree, at least not entirely. Jan Willem Verkiel of the Port of Rotterdam isn’t convinced that there’s “an immediate business case” in the short term. In his view, these operations will initially be expensive beasts, and given the state of play of the cargo industry “even clever cost-cutting exercises won’t be enough” to convince investors.

However, even if the timing is debatable, he concurs “it’s the way the world is going... after all, we already have a fully automated terminal... and it is a logical step”. Further, it seems he’s already had “several discussions” about how the rise of autonomous shipping could change the face of some of the port’s businesses, for example making tug services and pilotage “a very different game”.

Chain reaction

Mr Levander says changes associated with autoships will dig deep. Digitalisation of the market “means supply chains could now be optimised for the entire production chain – rather than just one leg”. He explains: “Everyone talks about efficiency stripping out costs, but shipping prices aren’t always the primary concern. After all, if you have an automobile factory running out of engines, the impact of the line coming to a halt is far more than the cost of the logistics: if you can, it’d be far better to switch routes.”

These sudden changes of schedule will have to be automated: the shifting scenarios will be faster and more complex than “anything the human brain could handle”, he explains. Therefore, it won’t necessarily be the ports with the deepest draft, but the ones that are software savvy and ‘network literate’ that will attract this new generation of ships. And the overall winners will be those that allow automated systems to take on the bulk of the data transfer.

Interestingly, Rotterdam is already on the lower slopes of this change: it’s looking at a digital transition and considering automating elements such as its VTS, port co-ordination and planning. Mr Verkiel says this new technology may soon be running complete system-to-system information exchanges with some incoming ships, bypassing the humans in the back office entirely.

Mr Vartdal goes further: just a little push could drive the trend right into the supply chain itself: “At the moment you have a number of smart systems, but you have humans in the loop, which actually slows the flow of information down. If you move over to completely digital information sharing then you can build a grid with a common awareness." This would be based on all the available data "and able to react very fast”. He adds inevitably, “you will eventually want to take the people out of the loop”, but he admits he sees resistance until the case is proven.

Addressing practicalities

It’s not just ‘blue sky thinking’; some developments are already underway. Trondheimsfjord, northern Norway, has put itself up as an official test bed for autonomous shipping by the Norwegian Coastal Authority.

But what about the – literal - impact on the wharf?

Eirik Hovstein of Maritime Robotics, part of the Autosea project using the Trondheim testbed, explains that an autonomous ship should “be able to berth itself without harming itself - or the quay”. As Mr Vartdal adds: “Navigationally there is no big obstacle, after all, planes are landing themselves - better than humans.”

“Scanning and alignment will be essential,” points out Mike Howie of Cavotec’s Moormaster division, and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) to recognise vessels heading into the berth (a current company project), “would likely be a necessary addition”. In Mr Vartdal’s view, “GPS won’t be accurate enough for positioning, so the port will have to consider installing a local reference system”.

If it sounds familiar, it should – these systems are not so far away from the kind of kit already installed in the yards of automated terminals. Further, while certain elements will need operators to step into some of the roles traditionally taken by crew, both Mr Hovstein and Mr Howie see automated mooring systems of the kind Cavotec has already developed as “a natural progression” of ship automation.

It helps that on investigation, a lot of it isn’t totally novel territory: as Mr Howie points out, using established systems will help smooth a way through “the large number of technical and regulatory challenges” ahead.

Common approach

But one area is new: unlike a segregated yard, these vessels will have to navigate a common fairway.

On this subject, Mr Hovstein remains sanguine, saying that given the appropriate sensors “autonomous ships will … be able to recognise other vessels both reliably and consistently enough to sail safely in a harbour” and points out that well-known “common rules” will apply – further, clear markings and navigation lights will help other port users identify these vessels.

Having said that, Mr Vartdal explains: “The biggest challenges are not around interaction with regular shipping as these comply with established COLREGs, but when the rules are upset by irrational behaviour... say, from people in a rowing boat.” He points out the system has to be capable of detecting and assessing every alternative, then “make its own decisions... which may mean choosing between the lesser of two evils in a critical situation”.

However, both are confident that the issues will be resolved, although Mr Hovestein adds there will probably need to be “a supervisory system... so that port authorities will have the complete overview”.

But, as an extension, will the port authorities want to have the option of taking over the vessel’s controls? Mr Verkiel says that the port simply might not find it comfortable to be put in that position. He explains: “So far, it’s been very simple. In the normal world of today, we don’t take over anything, the responsibility always lies with the master of the ship, even when we have pilots on board.”
Given all these issues, he concludes: “The whole issue of responsibility is going to be very interesting for the new technology - and the rules that we will have to develop to support it.”

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