In recent years, there’s been a lot of chatter about autonomous ships.

On one hand, companies engineering automation capabilities are naturally keen on the promise of these technologies. On the other hand, many shipowners believe that tackling increasingly stringent regulations around decarbonisation are more important, often equating “autonomous ships” with unmanned vessels navigating tumultuous seas.

For starters, many aspects of ship operations are already powered by automation today — including systems designed for safety and performance optimisation. At the same time, while it remains to be seen whether “unmanned ships” ever become a reality, there are many hoops to jump through before it’s even a possibility.

“Completely crewless deepsea vessels are a distant and debatable future,” says Hendrik Busshoff, product manager autonomy, at Wartsila Voyage. “Instead, the focus should be on how autonomy can solve today’s shipping problems — improve safety, decongest ports, improve the inland logics chain and help shipping become greener.

“There are solid reasons why the ‘Teslas of the Sea’ haven’t taken over global deepsea operations yet. Firstly, because the concept is centred around newbuilds, while there is an existing global fleet with a lot of good years left in them. As per Clarksons, in some segments, up to 67% of the current container fleet [by capacity] is in the order book. This means a lot of vessel technology decisions have already been locked to today’s technology. This fleet will simply not go away even if the autonomous vessels were given a green light to take off tomorrow.

“Plus, the average vessel capacity has nearly doubled in the last decade, and ships still continue to get bigger. A large containership is nearly 400 metres long and can carry around 20,000 TEU. In front of that, an 80-metre-long battery-operated boat is a prototype. So, as of now, it is practically impossible to have so many autonomous vessels ready to take over the existing fleets tonnage capacity.”

“Then, there are regulatory and safety issues. It’s a lot easier to get regional approvals for short-distance inland and coastal vessels that operate in restricted waters than to get IMO’s nod on container vessels performing intercontinental voyages autonomously.”

CASE STUDY: AMERICAN STEAMSHIP COMPANY

ASC: Earlier this year, one of its vessels became the largest (and probably oldest) to perform automated dock-to-dock operations. Currently, there is a massive pre-existing global fleet of over 100,000 ships with an average age of 21.7 years, which presents a massive opportunity- and need- to soup-up this tonnage with next-generation capabilities to improve safety, efficiency and productivity. Wartsila has developed the technology to do so. “We’re not trying to make all the ships fully autonomous tomorrow, but we can retrofit systems that bring new possibilities moving towards less work onboard, less human error and better performance,” says Alexander Ozersky, deputy director, Intellectual systems integration, at Wartsila Voyage. Read more here.

When it boils down to it, autonomous ships exist across a spectrum; some ships are considerably more automated than others. Keep reading to learn more about the myriad ways ships are using automation — perhaps more appropriately defined as “advanced assistance” — to bake more efficiency into their operations and drive better business outcomes.

Advanced assistance systems: Transforming ships today

With the right technologies in place, it’s possible to build a safer and more sustainable future for shipping through advanced assistance systems and autonomous solutions. This isn’t something that’s coming down the pike in the future, either; Busshoff notes that shipowners can make a difference right now, starting today.

At a high level, advanced assistance systems enable crews to take the right action at the right time, which improves safety and efficiency by automating specific tasks and even new ship designs. More specifically, automation can help:

●Improve situational awareness by combining data from different systems and smart sensors — including radars, lasers, and cameras — to determine what’s happening around the vessel and what’s taking place on board, which helps keep crews alert and aware.

●Use action and control solutions to ensure that vessels make the right decisions, using algorithms to analyze data and determine the best way forward while automating navigation and execution.

●Take the concept of automated dock-to-dock operations to the next level with Wartsila SmartMove, a flagship offering from the company that leverages advanced sensors and high-accuracy ship control systems to support semi-autonomous sailing.

●Disrupt inland and coastal short-distance shipping by using autonomous technology to become a safer, greener, and more efficient link in the logistic supply chain.

Add it all up, and these technologies are transforming the short sea and inland shipping space entirely, bringing more efficiency to the process from both an environmental and productivity perspective.

The promise of autonomy for the shipping industry

With the right tools and technologies in place, fleets can begin to unlock the full promise of autonomous ships:

Reduced human error. According to a recent report, 75% of all shipping accidents are caused by human error. By leveraging automation, you can reduce human error substantially, if not eliminate it from the equation entirely.

Improved safety. In addition, automation can help prevent system and equipment failures, further strengthening a vessel’s security stance.

Solving staffing issues. With some reports expecting a shortage of qualified maritime workers in the future, automation can help fleets prepare and stay productive even during labour shortages.

Decarbonisation. In order to comply with emissions mandates from the IMO, the design and operation of vessels needs to be reimagined. Once again, automation can help.

CASE STUDY: PROJECT MAGPIE

Project Magpie: Wartsila is delivering an autonomous, zero-emission container shuttle for the Port of Rotterdam to help decongest and make intra-port container movements greener. It believes that overland transport modes will not be able to absorb the emerging capacity bottleneck for internal container movement. As such, it is working on an autonomous e-barge concept that can greatly enhance efficiency in the Port through automated seaborne cargo transhipment. "Our ambition is to see these container shuttles introduced into a smart logistics network within the next few years," says Hendrik Busshoff. The installation for the autonomous barge will include several of the latest Wartsila solutions, including the SmartMove suite, which provides a unique pairing of sensor tech with navigation systems for safe, automated ship movement. Read more here.

For more information on how Wartsila Voyage can help your fleet incorporate automation into its operations today to better prepare for the future, check this out.