Pondering the realities of unmanned container ships

Pondering the realities of unmanned container ships

Unmanned cargo ship will usher in a new era in shipping, requiring a rethink of operations and business models in the industry, according to panelists at Nor-Shipping in Norway.

Unmanned ships will be able to carry more cargo than today's vessels as they will require no deckhouse and be cheaper to build because a range of equipment, from air conditioning to wastewater treatment, will not be required on board, according to Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation and technology at Rolls-Royce Marine, which is at the forefront of efforts to introduce unmanned ships to a skeptical industry. They are joined in the vanguard of that effort by a European Union project called Munin.

Levander said the entire design of the ships would have to be rethought if unmanned vessels were to became a reality. Business models will be affected too.

"Route optimisation of these ships would mean that day costs fall. Speeds would be optimized too. They would steam slower, so you would need more ships to optimize service frequency," Levander continued, referring to container vessels.

He pointed out that although the size of container ships is growing, this is no guarantee that future vessels will be as big. In the 1970s, several ultra-large crude carriers of more than 500,000 deadweight tonnage were built, but they did not become the benchmarks of crude oil transportation. Today, a very-large crude carrier of about 300,000 deadweight tonnage sets that benchmark.

Martin Kits van Heyningen, CEO of KVH Industries, a U.S.-based manufacturer of satellite communication and navigation systems, said it’s unlikely that unmanned container vessels the size of the 18,400 twenty-foot-equivalent capacity Triple-E class of Maersk Line will ever be built. That is largely because of potential dangers during the transition from human-controlled to unmanned ships. 

Regulatory considerations are one of the primary hurdles unmanned ships must overcome, considering international maritime law sets minimum crew requirements for ships, and unmanned ships would thus violate such rules. It is also unclear how ships would be classified and insured in the era of automated shipping, according to GE. Unlike automated aircraft and cars, the issue of legality has not been deeply researched or discussed.

One of most in-depth studies on the subject was done by Eric Van Hooydonk of the University of Ghent. He noted that in various national and international legal documents, the definition of a “ship,” does not mention a crew. This removes one barrier from having existing international law applied to unmanned vessels.

One of the biggest barriers to automated shipping will be the relationship between the vessel and its flag state, Hooydonk said.  After evaluating the pertinent legal regulations, Hooydonk concluded that new international regulations will need to be crafted in order to delineate these relationships and responsibilities.

Although there are legal barriers to the use of unmanned vessels for international shipping, this will not slow the technology’s development. Unmanned technology is likely to be used first on short-haul domestic trades because regulatory approval will only be needed from a single state.

This article originally appeared on IHS Maritime 360, a sister title to JOC.com within IHS Maritime and Trade. Contact Dustin Braden at dustin.braden@ihs.com