Remote-controlled, zero-emissions ferries: nearing a reality?
Ship & Boat International: March/April 2016
“Running ships would be ok”, lamented one ferry operator to me recently, “if it we didn’t have to have crew.”
Driving a significant nail into the coffin of seafaring as we know it was the initiative from the EU bureaucrats some 10 years ago, in criminalisation penalties of pollution incidents. Many sensible seafarers reconsidered a career change due to this new ill-conceived thought bubble. No use ending up in some pokey prison just because an automatic pump kicked into gear on your ship and sent some pollutants overboard.
In a puzzling world with an increasing population, getting good quality crew is a worldwide problem, irrespective of whether you are running tugs, ferries or ocean-going ships. Now, with this criminalisation legislation, good crews will be even harder to find, leaving more of the clueless ones behind.
So is it time to relook at remotely controlled ships? I think so. After all, we are already converts to applied technology and know full well that who has the remote in a house is in control. Our life is full of remote controls, for the car, the garage, the entertainment system, model cars, model ships…so why not real ships ?
Range of advantages
The space industry is already doing it well outside the planet, so we have the technology for easy one dimensional travel across the water.
There are now some clear advantages to having ships remotely controlled;
The main reason - no crew. I can already see the look of glee in the faces of shipowners who consider them unnecessary. Friends advise me that, aboard unionised US and Australian ships, the crews are already preparing for this event by doing absolutely nothing while at sea. They consider manual labour to be some kind of Mexican bandit.
No crew accommodation. This eliminates a huge block of windage, which probably will be replaced by a small radar tower incorporated into the steaming light positions. This weight saving, of course, can increase the vessel’s deadweight, adding to the owner’s earnings and delight. The reduction in windage will also reduce the equipment numeral, reducing the anchor size, the chain size and of course the windlass size and power needed.
No life saving appliances. What a joy this is getting better by the minute. No freefall lifeboats, liferafts, lifebuoys or even the already obsolete GMDSS.
No victualling buy provisions for the ship? Not anymore; no fridges, freezers and dry stores, leading to another significant round of savings.
This little lot, if you haven’t already figured it out, eliminates not just a huge amount of capital and operating cost, but a whole heap of regulations and, hopefully, the regulators that go along with them. The US and Australian Flag Authority regulators in particular, responsible for two of the world’s smallest fleets, have a disproportionate amount of say when it comes to IMO rules and regulations.
IMO, in case you hadn’t noticed, is no longer much interested in the safety of seafarers. Its focus for the last decade has been in line with that of the UN, that of a global environmental police force. Don’t believe me? Consider the EEDI, the BWM Convention, the establishment of ECAs, and so on.
The Holy Grail for zero emissions essentially means the battery boat. As an owner of a remote-controlled battery powered model boat, this sounds entirely feasible and possible quite pleasurable.
There are plenty of electric boats and hybrid ferries around the place, but they either have a limited service time of 1-3 hours at full noise, or have to carry the generators on board to top up the batteries.
According to industry expert Professor Alf Baird, many of these hydrid vessels have not had an optimised lightest weight structure nor an optimised hull form, so sticking a battery/generator combo aboard often results in a higher environmental footprint than with a vessel with an optimised structure and hull form with all-diesel engines.
One would think that if you are going to the expense of installing a sophisticated propulsion system, that the basic design steps should be adhered to.
There is a race on for battery supremacy. The lithium ion battery presently appears to be winning the race in mobile phones, cars and now household and small industrial roles, connecting the batteries in series to get the desired capacity. The life span of lithium ion is around 1,800 cycles or around 3-5 years, depending on use and then you have the pleasure of paying for another set. Their flammable electrolyte, presenting a safety hazard, is probably no more dangerous than a moody girlfriend with a derringer.
Another interesting battery development out of Australia is the heat cell using a graphite- based cell, which, according to the developers is twice as efficient as lithium ion and has just completed proof of concept in January this year. The system was designed for industrial use and a 14tonne cell will power a 400kW engine for 10 hours.
Quite heavy, you may think, but throwing away the diesel engine, gearbox, SW cooling piping, fuel tanks and piping and exhaust piping offsets most of this weight. Charging the cell with overnight power sourced via wind farm at 6-12 cents per kw/hr will reduce the fuel bill by 70-80%. Who needs an engineer for such simplicity? Another saving !
The scientists claim at least a 25-year life for these cells, so in the next Sea Transport 50m medium speed ro-pax catamaran being built in Nansha, China you will see the working model.
But the remote control permits for this vessel may prove to be a little more difficult.