WSJ: Ship Operators Explore Autonomous Sailing

….to ‘optimize’ labor costs….

Ship Operators Explore Autonomous Sailing:

More automation will enable them to optimize use of cargo vessels, cut fuel consumption and labor costs

“All hands on deck” may become a thing of the past.

Ship designers, their operators and regulators are gearing up for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with minimal or even no crew. Advances in automation and ample bandwidth even far offshore could herald the biggest change in shipping since diesel engines replaced steam.

Ship operators believe more automation will enable them to optimize ship use, including cutting fuel consumption. “The benefit of automation is as an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate,” said Palle Laursen, head of Maersk Line Ship Management, a unit of cargo-ship giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.

British engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative involving other companies and universities. It foresees technologies long used to improve commercial airline operations migrating to ships. The group also is tapping know-how from those working on driverless cars to adapt for safe at-sea autonomous operations.

A future unmanned ship could resemble some of the most advanced combat drones. It would sport infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras and laser sensors to monitor its surroundings. The vast troves of data would be transmitted to command centers where staff do little more than monitor progress and ensure ships are operating at optimum speeds.

The consortium completed a study this year that concluded such vessels are feasible and offer savings.

Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce’s marine unit, said moving toward greater autonomy and unmanned shipping could cut transport costs 22%. The bulk would come from lower staff costs, though such vessels also would be more fuel efficient by eliminating the need to carry equipment to support people onboard.

The first steps already are being taken. The Stella ferry, used in the Baltic and operated by Finferries, has been equipped with a variety of sensors including lasers and thermal cameras to assess whether such sensors could allow autonomous operations.

A critical step toward floating remotely controlled unmanned cargo ships on the oceans by 2030, and autonomous ones by 2035, is the ability to pass large amounts of data from ship to shore to ensure safe operations. For years, lack of affordable bandwidth has made that a challenge. A new generation of communications satellites is promising lower costs to transfer data.

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