Autonomous Vessels?

In the shipping industry, there are different rules than in the rest of the world. For example, internet connection on board is common for a few years and very often is quite limited for crew members.

Our world is going in direction of digitalization and autonomy of everything. We try to automatize all kinds of processes, so why do not digitalize Vessels? In the past 5 years, I got a chance to see a new building Vessel in different parts of the world. Autonomous vessels are just a matter of time…

The level of advancement is different for a different class of vessel and his destination. The most advanced types of Vessels are Offshore, Research, and Navy ships. This last category has the best solutions available on the market and even this, which are not on the market, yet. This gives us a good question, about the sky. We have fully autonomous drones, which are flights without a pilot. Why we cannot do this same with the vessels?

Principles of autonomous shipping

Ok, let’s try to check the difference between air and sea. First of all, time! Aircraft with passengers onboard can spend a maximum 20h. That is the world record! Anyway, can You imagine sitting 20h nonstop in the airplane? This has to be a disaster. Honestly, my longest flight was from Brisbane to Doha, and this 13,5h was for me too much. A voyage from Europe to the Caribbean islands by ship takes around one week. Continuously sailing 24/7 without “landing” in between. This gives us already the first really important case, which is reliability. Vessels have much longer voyages. Very often without any place to stop in between. Distances to radio stations and radars, ale also quite limited at open ocean.

What kind of fuel will use autonomous vessels?

The second big difference is fuel. This is not the only case in the capacity of tanks… more important is a type of fuel. Aircraft has delivered pure fuel which is ready to use. Onboard the vessels, fuel which is bunkered don’t have the highest quality. Before use, it is always heated and purified to make it cleaner. A lot of people will ask, but why the quality of fuel for ships is so poor? Why can we not deliver just the same fuel as for aircraft? First, different types of engines. Second and more important: money. Poor quality diesel fuel costs 420$ per ton. Jet fuel costs almost 50% more, around 620$ per ton. The average fuel consumption is around 100 tons per day. Some less, some more but to make our calculation more simply: 100 tons per day. It means, for 1 day, the difference in fuel costs is 20.000$. On the way from Europe to Cuba, You can safe 140.000$. Okay, this calculation is a little bit so easy, but this will give You a general impression.

Water is a tough environment for electronic

3rd major difference is environmental. The sky is quite clean. Every single time when one of the vulcanos, explodes airplanes stuck at the airports. This is no problem for ships. But for autonomous vessels, environmental issues are a really big challenge.

Saltwater vs autonomous vessels

At seas and oceans, units have constant contact with salt water. There is a no bigger enemy of sensitive electronics than saltwater. This gives us an idea about challenges. Improve water tightness and quality of materials used onboard. The second problem with the environment is waves. At the ocean very often we can face 6m waves. Depends on the region of sailing we can meet also higher ones. Depends on the region of sailing we can meet also higher ones. 6m wave with a speed of 60-70km/h is just an 8 level in 12 levels Beaufort scale. This gives a strong shot with a big impact. This creates a vibration that sensitive electronic also don’t like. To be sure that ships electronically survive multiple shots like this, repeated for many hours or even days, We need to install a solid shock-absorbing system. It has to be, properly design, developed, and tested.

Of course, there are many more elements, which are different for autonomous vessels and aircraft. But these three main topics, in my opinion, are giving an overview. At the moment this is the biggest challenge for designers, R&D departments, and engineers, all over the world. This does not mean, we would never have a fully autonomous vessel. But about this, I will tell You something next time


  • Mateusz Białas

    Researcher of Autonomous and Remotely Controlled ships. Since 2014 in Maritime Industry. Experience gained at Ro-Ro, Ferry, Container, and Heavy Lifts, design of Navy Ships.

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