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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Autonomous vessels will revolutionise shortsea shipping

Wed 07 Mar 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

Autonomous vessels will revolutionise shortsea shipping

Editor Martyn Wingrove highlights how unmanned ships and remotely controlled electric-propelled vessels can reduce emissions on roads

Autonomous coastal shipping can help reduce the amount of cargo transported by road and rail across nations. Unmanned ships or remotely controlled vessels should be considered for short routes where the navigation is known to be safe and secure.

These are some of the thoughts UK transport secretary Chris Grayling outlined in his vision for unmanned shipping at the end of February.

The British Government wants to be at the forefront of these developments as autonomous vessels and artificial intelligence are expected to revolutionise shipping. Mr Grayling expects these will make shipping safer and more environmentally friendly, cutting emissions on UK and European roads.

Autonomous vessels should improve safety at sea because they help reduce the risks that seafarers can be exposed to. For example, if they are deployed for tackling marine fires or operating in areas where there is a threat of gas affixation of explosion.

They could also reduce the number of maritime accidents by partially removing the potential for human error. However, there are arguments that having crew on board means computer errors could be detected and danger diverted, but that is for another time.

There could be national economic reasons for developing autonomous shipping as Mr Grayling thinks there could be a change in the way freight is transported around the UK. He envisions fleets of coastal ships, with electric or hybrid propulsion, replacing heavy goods vehicles, which would reduce road congestion.

Governments need to be working with IMO to pave the way for this new era of shipping. Mr Grayling said the UK government is doing so as part of the Maritime 2050 project, which was announced in February. In reality, so are other nations, and some like Denmark, Sweden and Norway are way ahead in autonomous shipping and e-navigation.

Sorry Chris, but Norway is already developing its first autonomous shortsea coastal ship. Norwegian groups Yara and Kongsberg are working on a semi-autonomous bulk carrying container ships for a shortsea project in Norway. Yara Birkeland could be in service by the end of 2019 and testing autonomous navigation soon afterwards.

However, the UK has developed autonomous vessels. For example, C-Worker 7 became the first semi-autonomous vessel to join the UK ship register in November 2017. Also that month, Maritime UK published a code of practice for autonomous vessels.

Now is the time that governments need to be working with IMO to bring about the rules that will govern autonomous and remotely controlled vessels and shipping. Then the industry can revolutionise shortsea shipping with this technology.

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