NauticExpo e-Magazine - #8 - The Age of Autonomous Vessels - NauticExpo e-Magazine

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The Age of Autonomous Vessels

Rewind the clock a decade and the idea of self-controlled vessels seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Yet today, crewless ships are becoming a reality.

As an example, the Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship project is working on the first full-sized craft programmed to cross the Atlantic in 2020 without a single person aboard. In addition, Rolls-Royce is actively pursuing its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative. But if increasing automation will make shipping more efficient, it will leave the industry increasingly vulnerable to cyber-criminals.

In this edition, you also will read about the smart container revolution that will reshape the maritime industry and the world’s largest emission-free electric ferries.

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When it sets sail in 2020, this vessel will be completely unmanned.
The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship (Courtesy of Shuttleworth Design)


The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship takes high-tech to the high seas. In 2020, it will be the first full-sized craft to cross the Atlantic without a single person aboard.   It was in late 1620 that the converted Dutch cargo ship Mayflower made its famous ocean crossing, carrying 102 pilgrims and a crew of about 30...

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The technologies needed to make remotely-operated and autonomous ships a reality exist.
Remote controlled autonomous ship concept (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

In collaboration with Finnish universities and global maritime companies, Rolls-Royce Marine has completed phase I of its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative to make autonomous shipping a reality. We talked to Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation–marine, Oskar Levander.


NauticExpo e-mag: Does the technology already exist for such a project?

Oskar Levander: The technologies needed to make remotely-operated and autonomous ships a reality exist. The sensor technology needed is sound and the algorithms needed for robust decision support systems—a vessel’s “virtual captain”—are not far away. The challenge is to find the optimum way to combine them cost-effectively. A series of sensor array tests is under way in Finland.

NE e-mag: Won’t you need to discuss this with the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

Oskar Levander: For such shipping to become a reality we need efforts at all regulatory levels. The legal challenges of constructing and operating a demonstration vessel at a national level need to be explored, while simultaneously considering appropriate rule changes at IMO.

Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable.

NE e-mag: Would this extend to liability?

Oskar Levander: Liability questions for autonomous ships are subject to national variations, but generally it seems there’s a less urgent need for regulatory change here.

NE e-mag: Isn’t standardization also a challenge?

Oskar Levander: The standardization of ship systems, the collection and analysis of significant quantities of operating data and the development of enhanced analytic capabilities will also be crucial [because they provide] a massive set of historic statistical data from which robust trends can be drawn and valid predictions of ship reliability made. Significantly more standardized and reliable ships will be essential if they are to operate at sea for several weeks without engineers aboard.

Containerised modules can be reconfigured during port visits (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Containerised modules can be reconfigured during port visits (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: How about safety and cybersecurity?

Oskar Levander: Remote-controlled and autonomous ships will obviously need to be at least as safe as existing vessels. And in order to secure regulatory approval, the support of ship owners, operators and seafarers, as well as public acceptance, will be needed.

Cybersecurity will be critical. We at Rolls-Royce are confident that it can be achieved. And that’s not just blind optimism. Rolls-Royce has nearly 20 years’ experience in its aero services business, which securely streams sensitive data from over 10,500 aircraft engines. The processes and expertise required to secure remote and autonomous ships systems are similar. It’s about understanding the context that the system will be used in and the risks that new technologies introduce.

Land-based control centre (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Land-based control centre (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: What would happen in the event of a pirate or terrorist attack?

Oskar Levander: Crewless ships could be built so they are very difficult to board. Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable. Indeed, computers could immobilize the ship, or have it steam in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it.

Recapture would also be easier, because there would be no crew held hostage. And without a captured crew to ransom, a piracy target is significantly less valuable. Rolls-Royce’s confidence in unmanned shipping in the relatively short term is not universally accepted, however.

Remote controlled autonomous ship concept (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Crewless ship (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: Is autonomy suitable for all classes of ships?

Oskar Levander: Unlikely. Some could be completely crewless and look radically different from current vessels. Others will be a blend of autonomy and remote control. And some, such as cruise ships, are always likely to need crew.

By 2025 we hope to have a remotely-operated and crewless high-seas vessel.

Tugs and road ferries are likely to be among the first sectors where we will see commercial use of remote-controlled and autonomous vessels. They will most likely fall under individual flag states’ control, which have the capacity to make special dispensations for their operation.

At Rolls-Royce, we envisage a remotely-operated vessel in local waters as the first stage and in operation by 2020. By 2025 we hope to have a remotely-operated and crewless high-seas vessel. Five years after that we expect unmanned ocean-going vessels to be a common sight globally.


At the 2017 SMART4SEA Conference in Athens at the end of January, Frank Coles, CEO of global e-navigation company Transas, expressed his scepticism of autonomous ship projects. “Before we can consider an unmanned ship, we need to resolve key elements. We need a workable ecosystem, connectivity and acceptable cybersecurity. It’s my proposition that none of these exist today”.

Coles explained his views in depth, making the point that, “Connectivity is critical and we are nowhere near the required level of capability. While there is increased satellite communications capacity, it’s not at the levels needed for remote maritime operations.”

He also believes that cybersecurity is a major concern. “If you install any designated piece of bridge equipment, it needs to comply with a significant list of regulations and be Class certified. Today’s ship-to-shore communications used for operations and being touted for unmanned ships, have no such regulations.”

“It’s like allowing an office network to operate without any controls over what’s installed on the computers. While many may not like a closed system like Inmarsat, maybe it’s the best option for securing and setting secure connectivity standards.”

“Without it, we will likely not see a safe unmanned ship.”

Watch the impressive Rolls-Royce’s vision of that revolution:


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Increasing automation will make shipping more efficient, but will also leave the industry increasingly vulnerable to cyber-criminals.
Crewless ships might be the target of cyberattacks (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)


With a growing number of key shipboard systems now becoming digitized and interconnected, cybersecurity is an increasingly important part of maritime risk management.   To date, the number of recorded maritime cyberattacks has been minimal. But as the commercial shipping industry moves into the autonomous era, the risk...

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  • ABB automated shore connection station (Courtesy of ABB)


    HH Ferries Group, which operates the Scandlines ferries across the Öresund strait between Helsingborg, Sweden, and Helsingør, Denmark, will convert two of its fleet to battery power.


    The Tycho Brahe and the Aurora will be fitted with 4.16 MWh of batteries this year. The $32.6 million investment is co-financed by INEA, the European Union’s transnational innovation agency. The biggest single investment ever by HH Ferries will result in the largest battery-powered vessels in the world. The project will lower total emissions from the four-ferry fleet by over 50%. In 2015, Scandlines transported 7.4 million passengers, 1.4 million cars, 390,000 trucks and 20,000 buses across the 4 km between Helsingborg and Helsingør at the Öresund’s narrowest point.

    The work will be carried out at Öresund Dry Docks in Sweden, with the Tycho Brahe scheduled for conversion in late April/May. It will immediately start operating as an electric ferry. The Aurora will undergo the same process in October. The lithium batteries will be supplied by the Norwegian/Canadian company Plan B Energy Storage (PBES), while the conversion will be the responsibility of global technology giant ABB.

    Four Charging Stations

    The PBES energy storage system features a proprietary liquid cooling system offering significant safety at sea. ABB´s conversion package also includes a control system and onboard DC grid technology.

    In another world first, ABB is supplying and installing four laser-guided robotic shore charging stations in the two port cities to optimize connection and charging times.


    The Tycho Brahe and the Aurora will be fitted with 4.16 MWh of batteries this year (Courtesy of Scandlines)

    “We are very pleased to work with PBES on this project,” commented Jan-Erik Räsänen, ABB marine and ports head of new technologies. “Our technology combined with their energy storage solution significantly improves the efficiency of the vessels, while lowering the environmental impact.”

    ISO Certification

    HH Ferries states that its vessels have adhered to Sulfur Emission Control Area rules since 2007, though they didn’t become mandatory until 2015. In January, the company announced that it received ISO 14001:2015 environmental management standard certification. CEO Henrik Rørbæk said, “From an environmental point, we invest responsibly in tomorrow’s technology solutions, leading towards a greener future.”

    HH Ferries Tycho Brahe will be the first to be converted (Courtesy of ABB)

    HH Ferries Tycho Brahe will be the first to be converted (Courtesy of ABB)

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    The HYBRIDShips project in Norway (Courtesy of Fiskerstrand)


    Backed by the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) and led by shipbuilder Fiskerstrand, the HYBRIDShips innovation project aims to have a pilot version of a hybrid hydrogen/battery-powered ferry operational by 2020.

    HYBRIDShips will establish the knowledge base necessary to build zero-emission propulsion systems for larger vessels and longer voyages. The pilot ferry will be the world’s first such hybrid to combine hydrogen fuel cell power working alongside batteries. Hydrogen is one of most sustainable and environment-friendly fuels on earth, producing only water and heat as by-products when used as fuel. It can be produced using a wide range of processes and from a variety of sources, including fossil fuels, biomass and other renewables.

    Fuel cells resemble batteries in that they produce electricity via a chemical reaction. Operation is continuous as long as fuel is supplied—they never run down. Hydrogen fuel cells emit no carbon dioxide or pollutants and run quietly because they have few moving parts.

    An Important Market in the Future

    The HYBRIDShips project has financial support from PILOT-E, a joint agency of the Research Council of Norway, Innovation Norway, and Enova. Apart from NMA backing, HYBRIDShips also includes the DNV GL classification society and other partners.

    “By addressing a specific ship design, the project will also bring forward our approval process for the maritime use of hydrogen as fuel. The same applies to DNV GL class rules,” said NMA’s new technology project group head Kolbjørn Berge. “The important thing is that the overall safety level is as high as for conventional, oil-powered machinery.”

    Offshore Wind Farms (Courtesy of Corrosion)

    Offshore Wind Farms (Courtesy of Corrosion)

    Speaking to NauticEXPO e-mag, Fiskerstrand’s HYBRIDShips project manager Kåre Nerem explained that the driving forces behind the project are environmental concerns and a will to develop new solutions. “Our PILOT-E funding comes from a program for zero emission solutions in the marine industry, but Fiskerstrand also wants to lead this new technology. We believe it will be an important market in the near future.”

    Nerem expanded on the reasons for NMA and DNV GL involvement.

    “DNV GL has rules for fuel cells and hydrogen, but they need updating given recent technical advances. NMA does not have rules. The two agencies’ main focus will be security and methods to safely handle hydrogen aboard vessels. In addition, the fact we will have a hybrid solution—hydrogen-driven fuel cells working with batteries—means NMA and DNV GL will also need to define technical and regulatory requirements for those fuel cells.”

    Why Both Hydrogen and Battery Power?

    Since either hydrogen or battery power results in zero emissions, why use both?

    “A hybrid solution will be the best way to reduce total energy consumption.”

    “HYBRIDShips’ most important aspect is the use of fuel cells and hydrogen. For longer voyages we believe these will be the best solution,” Nerem stated. “We have also worked out that a hybrid solution, where batteries are used to take peak loads during maneuvering, will be the best way to reduce total energy consumption.”

    Nerem predicts that the prototype ferry will go into operation during 2020, probably in the form of a converted existing ferry.

    As the HYBRIDShips project moved forward, the Hydrogen Council was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year. It is the first global initiative offering a long-term vision of transition to sustainable energy via hydrogen.

    Project of hydrogen-powered ferry in Norway (Courtesy of Fiskerstrand)

    Project of hydrogen-powered ferry in Norway (Courtesy of Fiskerstrand)

    Additionally, Rotterdam-based companies and the port authority are looking at using green electricity from offshore windfarms to generate hydrogen. Nerem stated, “We are aware of projects around the world, but for the time being we have not had any formal contact with others. But I am sure Fiskerstrand and our partners will be in touch with other projects to share experience and, to some degree, technical solutions.”

    Find a fuel cell animation here.


    Daniel Allen

    Daniel Allen is a writer and a photographer. His work has featured in numerous publications, including CNN, BBC, The National Geographic Traveller.

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    Celia Sampol

    Celia Sampol has been a journalist for more than 15 years. She worked in Brussels and Washington for national medias (Agence France Presse, Liberation, Europolitics). She’s the editor-in-chief of NauticExpo e-magazine and MedicalExpo e-magazine.

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    Tony Slinn

    Formerly editor-in-chief of IHS Maritime, Tony Slinn is an independent maritime journalist.

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    Samantha Fisk

    Samantha Fisk worked at RINA for 7 years and has now gone into freelance for European magazines.

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