Rotterdam port voices autonomous ship concerns

 The future of shipping? An artist’s impression of Rolls-Royce Marine’s autonomous container ship concept, Electric Blue. Credit: Rolls-Royce


A technology adviser at the Port of Rotterdam has questioned the safety and economic feasibility of autonomous vessels, saying that many ports are unaware of the implications.


The first prototype unmanned, self-piloted ships are close to rolling off production lines and some experts have predicted that remote controlled ships will be in commercial use by the end of the decade.


Speaking to Fairplay’s sister publication Ports & Harbors, Harmen van Dorsser, nautical innovation adviser at the Port of Rotterdam, strongly questioned the technology, saying autonomous ships may find it impossible to communicate and navigate safely in a congested harbour.


“An unmanned vessel that sails from Rotterdam to China could feasibly use a remote VHF connection to communicate with other vessels in its path, but that will not be practical given the complexity of port communication – we will need other solutions,” he said.


Spoken communication using VHF radio remains commonplace in ports, used for ship-to-ship communication and by Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) centres to contact vessels to verify their intentions. 

“One of key questions to solve is how an autonomous ship will communicate with a port authority and with other ships, including small sailing vessels,” said van Dorsser.


Global management consulting firm McKinsey has predicted that by 2067, fully autonomous 50,000 teu ships will ply the seas, but van Dorsser questioned the economic feasibility of operating large ocean-going ships autonomously.


“I don't see that happening,” he said. “Every hour of delay can cost about three euros per container, including warehousing and other costs, for some existing ships. First argument: The bigger the ship, the more container actions at the terminal, the longer the port stay.


“Second: the possibility of a two-day delay trying to reach a ship [that has become stranded without people on board to rectify problems] in the middle of the ocean is not going to be cost-effective.”


Van Dorsser said the Port of Rotterdam spoke to the European Sea Ports Organisation to ask how port authorities should act together to respond to the development of autonomous ships, but immediately found that “not many ports are working on this topic”.


Rotterdam wants to create a network of port authorities to answer that question. It is also trying to gather information about the market and its future direction, including the types of autonomous systems available and how they will interact with other parties such as VTS centres.


“We must ask ourselves: how might we as a port authority prepare the port to really welcome ships of the future and keep the operation smooth, smart, and safe for everybody?” he said.


Shippers, shipyards, academics, and regulators have been making moves to usher in the first wave of autonomous ships. Kongsberg has partnered with agricultural firm Yara to build what they claim will be the world’s first autonomous and zero-emissions ship, the container vessel Yara Birkeland, which will cost USD25 million to build. Japan’s largest container shipping company, NYK Line, has revealed plans to test a remote-controlled vessel to travel across the Pacific Ocean in 2019. And Rolls-Royce said it would develop a range of 60 m-long self-driving naval vessels, each with a range of 3,500 n miles.


The firm also signed an agreement with Google to use its cloud-based artificial intelligence software to ‘teach’ object detection to systems used in autonomous ships.


Recognising the ramifications of autonomous shipping for safety, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) agreed in June to develop a roadmap for a new international regulatory framework for the safe operation of autonomous ships.  This will involve a ‘scoping exercise’ to determine how safe, secure, and environmentally sound operations could be introduced into IMO instruments.


Kitack Lim, Secretary General of IMO, told Fairplay, “The MSC has recognised that IMO should take a proactive and leading role, given the rapid technological developments relating to the introduction of commercially operated ships in autonomous/unmanned mode. The scoping exercise is seen as a starting point and is expected to touch on an extensive range of issues, including the human element, safety,

security, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents, and protection of the marine environment.”


According to IMO, the scoping exercise could include identifying: IMO regulations which, as currently drafted, preclude autonomous/unmanned operations; IMO regulations that would have no application to autonomous/unmanned operations (as they relate purely to a human presence on board); and IMO regulations which do not preclude unmanned operations but may need to be amended in order to ensure that the construction and operation of automated vessel are carried out safely, securely, and in an environmentally sound manner.


It is likely to address different levels of automation, including semi-autonomous and unmanned ships, and could include discussion of a definition of what is meant by an “autonomous ship”. The MSC agreed that proper consideration should be given to legal aspects, including where the responsibility would lie in the case of an accident involving an autonomous ship, its consequences to the cargo, and the implications shoreside.


It is anticipated that the work will take place over four MSC sessions, through to mid-2020, beginning with MSC 99, in May 2018.


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