Editor’s Note: Maritime probably has the greatest potential for early commercial use of unmanned cargo vessels. Human pilots could navigate ships out of and into harbors, and automated systems could take them across wide oceans. But, as Capt Joe Burns of Sensurion Aerospace commented in this space several months ago, one of the biggest challenges to all unmanned systems is over reliance on weak, easily disrupted satellite navigation signals. eLoran systems planned by some coastal states are effective to 1,800 km offshore. Until that technology improves or another is developed and implemented, in mid-ocean areas satnav as the sole electronic signal will be an issue.
Unmanned Ships on the Horizon
With a new testbed and several research projects underway, autonomous shipping is one step closer to becoming a reality. And DNV GL is working on developing the necessary rules.
The little craft bearing the DNV GL logo gingerly braves the waves, as it skippers across the Trondheim Fjord under the watchful eyes of Kjetil Muggerud and Henrik Alfheim from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. Both students are investigating how advanced control systems and navigation software could control an unmanned vessel, using a 1:20 model of DNV GL’s concept vessel ReVolt.
“Advances in sensor technology, data analytics and bandwidth to shore are fundamentally changing the way shipping works. And as operations are digitalized, they become more automated,” says Dr Pierre C. Sames, Director of Group Technology & Research at DNV GL.
Governments around the world are looking into unmanned shipping as a way to move more cargo to sea in order to contain the spiralling costs of road maintenance caused by heavy lorry traffic, not to mention air pollution. Norway has taken the lead in exploring innovative ways of tackling this issue and bridging its many fjords and sea passages to ease transit.
Cost is a key consideration in all of this. In 2016 government agencies and industry bodies established the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) to promote the concept of unmanned shipping. In support of these efforts, the Norwegian government has turned the Trondheim Fjord into a test bed for autonomous ship trials. Other nations, most notably Finland and Singapore, are pursuing similar goals.
DNV GL is in the midst of this development, following its mission to make sure the technologies enabling autonomous ships will perform to the benefit of humans, their assets and the environment.
The human factor
“If we look at recent advances in driverless car technology, the thought of trying something similar with ships does not appear too far-fetched. After all, water has at least one great advantage: there is less traffic than on roads and reaction times are usually longer,” says Sames.