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The role of autonomous ships in a world wary of pandemics

The role of autonomous ships in a world wary of pandemics
Paul Sawers August 17, 2020

This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series: Automation and jobs in the new normal.

COVID-19 is accelerating technological advances across just about every industry, from robotic baristas that promote social distancing to AI and remote collaboration tools that help manual laborers get back to work. The pandemic has had a direct impact on the transport realm, with social distancing measures calling traditional modes of travel into question. Demand for ride-hailing services quickly plummeted with the advent of the pandemic, leading Uber to double down on food delivery and micromobility, while drone deliveries soared. And while autonomous vehicle companies have faced significant obstacles to real-world testing, early signs suggest the crisis could hasten the adoption of driverless vehicles.

However, automobiles, trucks, and drones are only part of the autonomous transport picture. Ships and other seafaring vessels play a huge role in the global economy. As lockdowns ease and the world adapts to a new paradigm, maritime automation could gain significant traction.

Not shipshape

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), maritime vessels constitute around 90% of all international trade — making them, as ICS puts it, the “lifeblood” of the global economy. But boats are also floating petri dishes.

In the Geography of Transport Systems (2020), Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and coauthors drew correlations between transportation and pandemics, with specific reference to the Spanish Flu. They highlighted one of the key reasons 100 million people died and 30% of the world’s population became ill:

One important factor why the Spanish Flu spread so quickly and so extensively was through modern transportation, which at the beginning of the 20th century offered global coverage. The virus was spread around the world by infected crews and passengers of ships and trains, and severe epidemics occurred in shipyards and railway personnel.

In short, transportation plays a pivotal role in the spread of viruses, which is why airlines, trains, subways, taxi services, and boats saw such huge drops in usage following outbreaks of COVID-19.

Cargo and passenger ships around the world have been turned away from ports by local authorities, with as many as 300,000 merchant sailors stranded at sea for months, far beyond their contractual agreements. In April, ICS and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) issued a joint call demanding governments “take urgent measures” to facilitate crew change flights.

While the implementation of autonomous technology is not yet widespread enough to turn the tide on COVID-19, many are already looking to the future. And companies that have been working to bring automation to the shipping industry are now poised to enter a world wary of pandemics.

Tel Aviv-based Orca AI is developing a collision avoidance system that is currently being piloted by a number of shipping companies globally, CEO and cofounder Yarden Gross told VentureBeat. The company applies its algorithms to data extracted from multiple sensors installed on a vessel, including thermal and low-light cameras, to detect and measure the distance to other vessels and objects in the water. “We then provide [a] risk assessment of any detected object and vessel to enable the crew to be more aware of potentially dangerous situations,” Gross said.

While radar and other systems have long been used at sea, they may require constant monitoring and can’t always alert crews to a hazard or issue actionable recommendations. This problem becomes particularly pronounced when multiple vessels or obstacles are in close proximity. Throw into the mix crowded or narrow waterways and low-light conditions and it’s easy to see why at least three-quarters of maritime accidents are caused by human error, at least according to liability claims data.

Orca AI is banking on technology to turn the tide. “The shipping industry is one of the most conservative industries in the world, and the pandemic is creating an increased demand for digital tools, automation, and connectivity, in order to reduce the number of people involved in the whole process,” Gross said.

The transition to fully autonomous ships will take time, particularly for large vessels that travel thousands of miles between continents. This shift could mirror the evolution of autonomous cars and trucks, beginning with semi-autonomous technologies, such as collision avoidance systems, and initially focusing on narrow use cases on predefined routes.

The vast majority of maritime accidents happen in ports, straits, or canals, which is where Orca AI is currently focused. “This is where the existing equipment is lacking in efficiency and accuracy,” Gross said. “Today, systems don’t take full control over vessels, but gradually there will be more autonomous capabilities. It will be similar to aviation, where there is still a pilot, but most of the time the computer is controlling the plane and the pilot is supervising and doing other tasks. In autonomous shipping, there will still be a crew, but there will be more and more tasks done autonomously.”

“Marine pilotage” is a term for specially trained mariners who board ships near the port to guide them through domestic waterways, often providing local knowledge of water-based thoroughfares that the captain doesn’t have. This task is sometimes carried out “remotely,” particularly during adverse weather conditions, with pilots on smaller boats guiding a big ship to safety or offering instructions from a control center. However, the COVID-19 crisis could be expediting such efforts, as a number of ports have been forced to embrace remote pilotage for ships or crew arriving from high-risk countries.

In late March, the Italian cruise ship Costa Diadema reported 65 cases of COVID-19 on board. To pass through the Suez Canal without a pilot physically boarding the ship, a team on tug boats maneuvered it using radar and information from monitoring stations along the route. Similarly, a U.K. fishing port in April introduced remote pilotage for vessels entering its harbor.

While remote pilotage might not entirely replace traditional methods, technology can make the work more efficient and safe. Orca AI promises to help pilots do their work remotely by “streaming the data from the cameras and other sensors back to shore in real time,” Gross said. “Orca is in discussion with a few ports regarding this.”
Going local

Norwegian chemical company Yara International and technology group Kongsberg have been working on the Yara Birkeland Autonomous Ship Project since 2017, with plans to put an electric, autonomous container ship into service. This effort would span three ports and 12 nautical miles in southern Norway.

The ship, which sports various sensors, including radar, lidar, and infrared cameras, has an automatic mooring system — berthing and unberthing will be done without any human intervention. Along the route, operation centers will be equipped to handle emergency situations remotely and support the onboard AI’s decision-making.

The Yara Birkeland will have a crew initially, and the transition to full autonomy will be done in stages, thanks in part to the development of a detachable bridge (a ship’s command center).

“Even before the vessel starts its operation, there will be a level of automated capabilities for maneuvering, positioning, moorings, and supporting the crew,” An-Magritt Tinlund Ryste, product director for next-generation shipping at Kongsberg, told VentureBeat. “We foresee that we will be required to implement new autonomous functionality gradually to verify the performance in real-life operational scenarios before we arrive at the final stages where the vessel, the connectivity solution, and the remote operation center is sufficiently tested to allow for unmanned operation.”

While the Yara Birkeland was scheduled to transition to full automation by 2022, the COVID-19 crisis has forced developers to “pause” work on the project. Such setbacks are not ideal, but Ryste suggested the pandemic could accelerate the broader autonomous ship movement, as “ship owners and operators have an increased incentive to invest in new technology for the future, with a focus on support and surveillance from land.”

The Yara Birkeland represents part of Kongsberg’s wider effort to bring more autonomy to seafaring vessels. The company has already developed and demonstrated autocrossing and autodocking technology, and the first “adaptive transit” passenger ferry service traveled from dock to dock earlier this year. This was done through a collaboration between the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA), shipping company Bastø Fosen, and Kongsberg. The launch kick-started a six-month trial, during which Kongsberg’s system controlled the ferry’s journey from start to finish, with a captain overseeing the trip from inside the bridge. The next step is to install an anti-collision system, and tests are scheduled for later this year.

Kongsberg partnered in 2018 with maritime industry group Wilhelmsen to launch a joint venture called Massterly, designing land-based operation centers to monitor and control autonomous ships in Norway and further afield. This echoes what we’re seeing in the broader autonomous vehicle realm. Sweden’s Einride recently showcased remote driving stations where teleoperators — many of them former truck drivers — can take control of Einride’s autonomous trucks when required, with an operator able to control multiple vehicles from a single station.

Einride operators will be able to control multiple autonomous trucks from a single remote drive station

Einride demonstrates that while some jobs will be lost to AI and automation, new ones will be created. For autonomous shipping, this could mean new roles for staff overseeing ships remotely. This shift will also expand the talent pool to include people in other locations.

“Remote services are here to stay,” Ryste continued. “We see it working well for people working from home, and with more sensors and connected vessels, the need for having a service engineer on board also decreases. This gives you access to an expert in a time zone convenient for the vessel crew.”

The pandemic will likely accelerate efforts to incorporate autonomous technology in shipping. “I think that what has happened during the COVID-19 crisis will strengthen the argument for the push toward autonomous ships,” Kongsberg research and innovation manager Jason McFarlane told VentureBeat. “In particular, in relation to the restriction of people’s movement and the challenges with crew changes. Autonomous shipping, especially for unmanned vessels, should allow freight and cargo to be transported internationally and across borders without being affected by restrictions on people’s movement.”

We’ve already seen similar activity in other industries — from the passage of new laws to new corporate work-from-home policies and the adoption of new technologies. In the shipping industry, as with others, such changes could open the doors to a more permanent shift.