At the turn of the millennium the concept of driverless cars was pure science fiction. Now they’re a fact, with pilot vehicles clocking up the miles in the US, while companies such as Google, Tesla and Uber refine their propositions, strategies and technology. Driverless trucks are already working within the mining industry, while driverless trains transport both people and raw materials in locations worldwide.
Why should shipping be any different? The simple answer is: it won’t.
The first steps forward
It is unlikely that these futuristic ships will sail off the drawing board and into our hearts. People need time to become accustomed to the idea of self-steering steel giants, while the industry must develop the right regulatory framework, undertake stringent testing, and establish consensus about the best way forward.
But these issues must be seen against the context of potential benefits. Smarter ships, empowered by data sharing and seamlessly connected to onshore teams, will optimise performance, reduce costs, lower emissions and, crucially, address the number one cause of maritime incidents and accidents – human error. The arguments in favour of autonomous ships are convincing enough for development to be already underway, with e-navigation as an essential part.
Charting the route
E-navigation is so much more than digital charts. Using data as a facilitator, it delivers real economic advantages for the maritime industry by connecting decision makers, driving efficiency, enhancing safety and optimising operations for vessels, fleets and entire businesses.
Autonomous vessels are a natural step forward for the e-navigation discipline, with connected, digitised ships that perform with optimal efficiency, safety and security. Using the latest digital innovations, ENCs and the ECDIS can be used as a base upon which layers of information and functionality can be built. Furthermore, the sharing of data between vessels, maritime authorities and office-based teams enables both insights and overviews that give owners and operators complete control. People and assets can now be more connected than ever before, and this is central to the development of autonomous vessels.
Driving maritime development
NAVTOR’s expertise in e-navigation and data sharing lead to the company’s involvement in ENABLE, an EU-funded project that aims to prove, verify and validate the safety of autonomous vehicles of every type. NAVTOR has been enlisted to represent the maritime industry. During the project NAVTOR will investigate the concept of ‘shore-based bridges’ and test the validity of the software element of a remote bridge concept. Built on continuous data sharing between vessels and land, the project aim to transfer key navigation functions from the crew on board to office-based teams. In other words, this means those on land will be able to navigate vessels at sea.
It is not likely that all types of vessels will evolve into becoming fully autonomous and unmanned. Ferries and liners with predictable sailing patterns probably will, but the cruise business, for example, would face a much tougher transition to autonomy. But whether they switch to full autonomy or not, e-navigation will soon become central to the voyages of all seagoing vessels. And that is a science fact.