Beyond the Iron: An Unmanned Sea?

Beyond the Iron: An Unmanned Sea?

Beyond the Iron: An Unmanned Sea?


As the world settles into 2018, the autonomous movement of freight is still a cutting edge development. There is some discussion about just how far this ‘edge’ is going to cut. One of the prominent manufacturers of autonomous vessels says in its mission statement, “we see a future where there is no job at sea that an [Autonomous Surface Vehicle] cannot do.”

This is the inaugural column for “Engines and Water” and it seems appropriate to start off by speaking to this general point. How far ahead does one have to ‘see’ to see an unmanned sea?

Last year tech-world giant Amazon became a licensed freight forwarder. Chinese tech conglomerate Alibaba partnered with Maersk and other container operators. One way or another, high-tech is coming to the deep blue, and increasing vehicle autonomy will be a part of that.

Already this year, the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, announced that his country will be looking to revitalize its shipbuilding industry, and plans to develop a comparative advantage in the high-tech part of that industry, inclusive of “environmentally friendly, autonomous driving technologies” which are the industry’s new “growth engines.”

Moon vowed to announce measures for the “innovative growth of the shipbuilding industry” before the end of the first quarter.

A Skeptic

The chief commercial officer of Ardmore Shipping, an owner and operator of product and chemical tankers, is skeptical of the ASV vision, at least with regard to his industry.

Gernot Ruppelt will be speaking at the Asia Pacific Maritime 2018 Conference in March. Perhaps by way of previewing his remarks there he gave an interview to World Maritime News recently in which he spoke to this issue.  “At this stage, we don’t see a market for unmanned shipping in the tanker sector,” he said.

The oil majors might conceivably band together to push the technology, but “we don’t envisage them being happy with no crew on board.” Without their approval, it won’t happen.

Ruppelt adds that the “technology innovators” of the world are “understandably passionate about what they believe their solutions can deliver,” but a high threshold must be satisfied “before a shipping company gets out its cheque book.”  Ardmore is generally an early adopter of promising technologies, but it doesn’t see itself as a “pioneer,” he said.

With the increasing reliance on digital technology comes a susceptibility to hacking, viruses, etc. Ruppelt says that it is necessary “to balance the benefits that this technology brings with the additional vulnerabilities,” there were “a number of high profile cyber-attacks last year,” so this need to concern one’s self with cyber security applies “equally to shoreside operations” as to the ships at sea.

Autonomy and Zero Emissions

Ruppelt may be unready to get the checkbook out, but in May 2017 Yara and Kongsberg, both innovative Norwegian companies, teamed up in announcing the development of a seaborne all-electric container transport, the YARA Birkeland, which will initially operate as a manned vessel, but which will move to remote operations in 2019, and which will be “expected to be capable of … fully autonomous operations from 2020.”

In making the announcement the companies proudly called this a “game changer.”

According to Hellenic Shipping News, the YARA Birkland will “hit the water” this year, 2018. 

Kongsberg’s part in the collaboration involves delivering the controls for the electric drive, battery, and propulsion systems as well as integrating the Birkeland’s electronics for remote operations.

It’s possible to see this combination of all-electric engine with the absence of a human crew as a Norwegian national phenomenon, though only in the sense that the Beatles were an English phenomenon – that doesn’t mean it won’t catch on more broadly. Last year the Norwegian Maritime Authority boasted in this connection that “Norway is at the forefront with regard to facilitating new technology.” 

And Unmanned Rivers

Is it catching on more broadly? Well … a Dutch company has introduced an autonomous electric barge which it plans to roll out into the European market in August 2018.

There will be a fleet of such barges, five at first, designed to clear the bridges found on the rivers of the Netherlands and Belgium.

This development is in part the consequence of a subsidy by the EU aimed at improving port efficiency. The EU put €7 million into this project, the port of Antwerp another €200,000.

One of the fascinating features of the barges is that their batteries are in a self-contained unit: that is, batteries for this system could be introduced into existing vessels, making them ‘green’ (carbon neutral) in the process. Eneco, a carbon-free energy provider that came together in 1995 through the merger of Dutch municipal utility companies, charges the batteries onshore.



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