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In May, our published sister weekly FTW carried a story about the development of unmanned “autonomous trucks” on mines.

And we’re now at a stage where underground trains, trucks, cars, computer-controlled container transport vehicles at terminals, and people movers in airports, can all be operated unmanned already.

Now the first of such projects is being launched for container shipping. For example, Rolls-Royce and the European Commission-sponsored project “Munin” are among those developing concepts for unmanned ships as well.

But a major shipping line, Hapag Lloyd, has just carried its viewpoint in its regular “Insight” publication.

It started by asking: “Does that mean we will see container ships without a captain or crew sailing the oceans in ten to fifteen years’ time?

And answered its own question:

“The majority of the necessary technology already exists. On the bridges of modern ships, the command centres from which these container giants are steered, many tasks are already fully automated today.

An autopilot can set the course, cruise control can maintain the speed, and radars and ship identification systems monitor the surroundings at sea and sound the alarm if there is any danger.

“On unmanned ships, however, there would be no sailors to oversee the technology on the bridge; it would simply be monitored by a captain onshore at a control station. He could intervene whenever necessary and use the computer to take control of the ship. So that he has all the information he needs, additional conventional cameras as well as infrared cameras would be mounted to recognise small vessels, flotsam and shipwrecked people.

“The benefits seem clear. On unmanned ships, the space currently occupied by the bridge and crew quarters could be used to store extra cargo. Shipping companies would save on personnel expenses. Proponents also argue that accidents caused by human error would be avoided with unmanned ships.

Would sailing thus become even safer with unmanned vessels?

“No. Steering the ships from land is not necessarily safer than from sea since it would still be a person doing the job. At the moment, there is also a crew on board to carry out regular maintenance tasks and keep the ship in good condition – such as by dealing with rust caused by the salt water. This keeps the downtime the ship spends in the dock to a minimum. Reefer containers and dangerous goods must also be checked daily to make sure that the cargo does not suffer any damage.

“A vessel controlled by computers would also be a target for hackers and pirates. They may be able to hack the system and cause the ship to deviate from its set course.

“Another argument against unmanned ships is that it might take days to reach the ship in the event of an emergency such as a fire or leak. Maritime laws would also have to be amended. International maritime laws demand that a ship has a minimum crew on board for security reasons – unmanned ships are currently deemed abandoned.

“Unmanned container vessels: Is this what the future in shipping will look like?

“Shipping at liner shipping companies….would also prove a particular challenge. Ships sail regularly, almost like buses – but on liner services across the globe. On these liner services the ships stop in dozens of ports – always a challenging manoeuvre which cannot be easily controlled remotely from a faraway control station.

“And last but not least: personnel costs are only a small fraction of the costs incurred in operating ships.

“At the moment we are very sceptical when it comes to the future of unmanned ships in our company, and have no relevant plans in the pipeline,” says Richard von Berlepsch, MD of ship management at Hapag-Lloyd, “but we will follow the course of these developments with great interest.”

Source: Hapag Lloyd (edited)