Autonomous Shipping

Autonomous Shipping

Coastal shipping

A new generation of smart and autonomous ships, commonly known as Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are looking at the past to achieve global sustainability by offering efficient, environmentally friendly seaborne transport using coastal and inland waterways instead of road haulage by trucks.

MASS are less costly to run than fully crewed ships. With lower Opex, new business models can be conceived; companies can operate their own logistics chain from land to sea, using i.e., battery-powered ships. Capex may be more than a traditional ship due to technology development costs, but building ships without facilities for crew, with new power solutions can introduce huge financial and environmental gains.

Take the Yara Birkeland, all-electric, zero-emissions, autonomous container vessel as an example. It’s being built to deliver agricultural company Yara International’s fertiliser products from its plant in Porsgrunn Norway to the international ports of Larvik and Breivik. The distance? No more than 30 Km. But when operational in 2020, it will reduce truck journey’s through towns and villages in Southern Norway by more than 40,000 a year, while producing zero pollution – its batteries will be charged by hydro energy.

But what does this have to do with satcom? Short-sea ships are generally in range of 3/4G coverage and can use line-of-sight solutions for high bandwidth data transfer. There will be a lot of data transfer for safe and efficient operations, with hundreds, potentially thousands of sensors feeding back to control rooms. Satcom will be in the mix, but likely only for critical redundancy. The real scope for satcom in the context of MASS only comes when we start looking at the international picture.

Global shipping

MASS have been able to establish a foothold and fire the imagination to develop new business models because national authorities can decide what happens in their waters. Fortunately, many governments agree that with today’s technology, unmanned ships can be as safe, if not safer than manned vessels.

But in order to operate in international waters, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has to approve the use of MASS and draw up specific regulations. Until May 2018, IMO had remained quiet on its stance, but at the Marine Safety Committee 99 (MSC 99) in May 2018, the organisation entered the arena with the activation of a MASS scoping exercise. This could be the first step in global autonomous shipping, and it’s where satcom comes in.

Combining state-of-the-art operational technology and sensors, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning is essential to enabling the autonomy controller on board a ship to navigate independently. But the systems all generate data that, just like a fully-crewed ship, can be made to improve operations if available for experts at control rooms ashore.

However, MASS depend much more on incoming data than a standard ship. Weather, routing and safety notices for instance, must all feed into the control systems, allowing a dynamic rather than pre-programmed approach to operations, without which safe navigation and maneuvering without a human-in-the-loop is impossible. The only way to achieve this on the oceans, is by satellite.

The YARA Birkeland proves that the technology to make total autonomy a reality is already here. And it can be deployed just as easily for ocean-going ships, as long as satellite connectivity is always available. In this context, Cobham SATCOM’s VSAT portfolio is essential to the future of MASS and the benefits they can bring to the world.

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