Could computers captain the world’s cargo ships?
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Cargo ships carry the bulk of the world’s trade – but are a major source of pollution. Could computer control go some way to making them cleaner and more efficient? Jack Stewart reports.

At any given moment, there are some 55,000 cargo ships at sea, plying the world’s oceans. They are transporting the goods and the groceries, fuels and food, cars and computers that form the backbone of global trade. But they also carry a heavy environmental cost when it comes to carbon emissions. Far from our big cities, less visible than our pollution-belching industries and motorways jammed with idling cars, giant cargo ships are also adding their considerable carbon footprint.

In the last 15 years, container ships have greatly increased in size – by “almost a factor of five” according to Matt Collette, who teaches ship design at the University of Michigan in the United States. The world’s largest ship, the Triple-E, operated by Danish shipping giant Maersk is 1,320ft (400m) long, almost the length of four football pitches, 240ft (73m) tall and 194ft (59m) wide. It can carry 18,000 standard 20-foot containers. If those containers were placed end-to-end on a train, that train would be nearly 70 miles (110km) long.

As we can’t live in this globalised world without these giants, how can we make them cleaner and more efficient? Could the answer be to make them sail themselves?

Attention spans

Giants like the Triple E may only (remarkably) be staffed by a crew of 20 people, but even so the type of automation advances touted as making cars and trucks safer could also be used to improve ships – even ships of such gigantic proportions. These marine giants could theoretically roam around the oceans without any crew at all, either fully autonomously or under control from a central ground station.

 “There are two primary drivers for automation,” says Collette. “One is that human beings are not very good at long repetitive tasks.” Which is of course what standing watch on a long ocean voyage is. “That’s when you see lapses in concentration that lead to the ship getting into a collision or running aground,” he explains. “Automation could reduce those types of accidents significantly, because the computers have no problem paying attention for a two-month voyage.”

VTT and Rolls-Royce's concept could bring virtual reality to the bridges of container ships (VTT/Rolls-Royce)

VTT and Rolls-Royce's concept could bring virtual reality to the bridges of container ships (VTT/Rolls-Royce)

The second reason is carbon emissions. If shipping, taken together, was considered a country, it would be the sixth-largest in the world in terms of carbon emissions, the building blocks of man-made climate change.

“One of the ways we could reduce the carbon emissions is to make them go much slower,” Collette explains.

That’s because the faster a ship travels the more fuel it burns, says Paul Stott, a senior lecturer in the School of Marine Science and Technology at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. “Increase speed by 10% and you increase fuel consumption by between 33% and 46%,” he says.

Crew costs

You may think the answer is simply to have slower ships with smaller engines working less hard, to use up less fuel. But that makes voyages last longer, and crew costs would rise dramatically, making the idea unattractive to shipping companies.

“If the ship had no people on it, then you’re not going to see that increase in crew costs, so you could potentially have ships sailing much slower than they are today and becoming more efficient in terms of their carbon emissions,” Collette says.

The European Union is running a project called Munin (Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Networks). It is looking at concepts for partially or fully automated freight vessels, and recently reported that it has “not found any fundamental obstacles to the introduction of unmanned ships”.

Autonomous ships might be more efficient - but how would they cope with a mechanical breakdown? (AFP/Getty Images)

Autonomous ships might be more efficient - but how would they cope with a mechanical breakdown? (AFP/Getty Images)

The shipping industry as a whole is embracing the idea of automation too. But there are some possible impediments. Computers are not good at dealing with unusual incidents, such as fire or mechanical breakdowns. Help will have to be summoned.

“It is not unknown for a ship’s engine to malfunction – I have been at sea several times when the main engine has stopped,” says Stott. “This then becomes a situation with significant potential for danger to life and property and the engineering crew will be working very hard to get the engine re-started.”

There are other scenarios he can imagine, where the crew may be needed to drop anchor, for example, to try to stop a vessel drifting into danger. There may also be extreme cases where the best decision is to run the vessel onto a beach to minimise loss of life and pollution. “We could minimise crews and change their role, but could we eliminate them entirely, given this possibility?” he asks.

Complex regulations

“The navigation of the ship is probably close to automation already,” says Stott, but when a tricky situation is encountered, the crew still takes over. “A navigating officer’s nightmare is piloting through hundreds of small fishing vessels, and this is a skill that may be difficult to automate.”

There are also regulatory issues to overcome, which can be particularly complex given the global nature of shipping. Different countries have different rules, all of which will have to be rewritten to allow robots to sail.

Given the issues, a likely intermediate step will be augmented reality and “driver assistance” systems similar to those that we are seeing in high-end cars.

Cargo ships crews could shrink in size - but could they be done away with completely? (Science Photo Library)

Cargo ships crews could shrink in size - but could they be done away with completely? (Science Photo Library)

Data is collected from all over a ship, and that can be initially processed by computer before being presented to its crew. It could even be processed onshore at centralised command centers, where specialists can monitor a number of ships at the same time to ensure maximum efficiency.

“Weather routing is a case in point,” says Stott. Changing a planned route to avoid bad weather could save a heavy fuel-use penalty, and tweaking speed to arrive at the destination just in time could save significant amounts of polluting fuel being wasted. “It’s pointless sailing at a higher speed and then having to wait for a berth,” he says.

Tension sensors

Sensors could also help a captain feel connected to a ship, which is not possible in these giant machines. “We’re seeing augmented reality used to try to capture the stresses in the ship, or how heavily the sea is loading the ship, and to display that information to the crew,” says Colette

Rolls Royce, together with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, has given us a glimpse of what that future would look like on ships where virtual reality bridges replace the traditional seafaring controls. The possibilities are far-reaching, as shown in a video released by the company.

Controls are replaced by workstations, with full colour heads-up displays projecting information from sensors around the ship. Route analysis can be displayed, and even the tension on cables running through winches displayed in an easily understandable form.

The first generations of that augmented reality technology are being installed now, and we will see the most sophisticated versions of that within the next 15 years, experts believe. The idea of fully autonomous ships could take 20-30 years to go from the drawing board to the shipping lanes. But it’s possible the winds of technological change, from human to computer control, could one day be felt far out to sea.

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