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Could unmanned ships solve Japan's population crisis?

The Naval Architect: July/Aug 2019Japan unmanned

Japan, as is widely documented, has an ageing population and one of the sectors where it’s being felt most acutely is maritime. Data published in 2015 revealed that 56% of Japan’s 20,000 seafarers involved in domestic cargo shipping were aged 50 or over.


Last year, The Nippon Foundation, a privately funded Japanese philanthropic organisation that has been involved in maritime, as well as education and public welfare projects, for more than 50 years, began turning its attention towards autonomy. Conscious of the rapid progress being made within northern Europe – particularly Norway and Finland – a recently published report, Future 2040, argues for the widespread implementation of unmanned vessels as the ideal mid- to long-term solution with the hope of stimulating further action.


While there is already some ongoing research into ship autonomy being conducted in Japan, notably a joint industry project being overseen by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism, the Nippon Foundation has focused upon understanding the social and economic impact unmanned ships could have upon domestic shipping.


Following in-depth discussions with an array of maritime experts and futurists around the world, it concluded the country’s unmanned ship ‘economy’ could be worth US$9 billion per year by 2040 and account for 50% of Japanese coastal ships in service by that time.


Much of this total (US$5.1 billion) would be derived from domestic and inland shipping, to which the study gave particular emphasis. As a nation that includes numerous smaller, often remote islands and around 4,000 ports, unmanned ships create the possibility of both increasing the frequency of cargo ship calls and attracting more foreign tourism.


But the Future 2040 report also foresees unmanned opportunities for larger cargo, such as petroleum products. ‘Unmanned’ in the Foundation’s perception of the term will mean largely autonomous, although key decisions will be made remotely by onshore personnel.


The rapid increase of land-based specialists for both remote operations and maintenance, in effect a changing definition of what it means to be ‘crew’, is one of the eight industry changes the Foundation has identified. Among these are shipyards, which would become broad-based ‘ecosystems’ heavily dependent on automation, where traditional engineering roles will diminish while drawing more heavily upon IoT, cybersecurity and systems specialists.


Human resource development is seen as a key facet of the Foundation’s proposed strategy, including women, older citizens and the younger generation Japanese maritime has struggled to attract. Moreover, increased importance of cyber would also give rise to a diversified range of insurance services.


Masanori Yoshida, chief advisor with The Nippon Foundation’s office of offshore development, tells The Naval Architect that standardisation will be key to a successful transition. “This means that the ship machinery and equipment industry will need to merge and adapt, as well as the ship specific supply chain companies.”


This standardisation would extend to information sharing and the Foundation is advocating the development of open source platforms in aspects such as the exchange of navigational data, similar to the EU’s Sea Traffic Management (STM) initiative. Companies from different fields will be encouraged to collaborate on new ventures.


Yoshida says that it’s widely acknowledged in Japan that cooperation with other countries developing autonomous technologies may be beneficial. “We need to consider internally what knowledge and skills we are lacking and what we should develop to keep our industry competitive. Finland, for example, already has experience with remote control and digitalisation. Dynamic positioning is maybe another technology where others have greater experience.


“Personally, I believe one of the biggest challenges will be propulsion systems because it’s more difficult to operate diesel engines automatically, but electrical engines depend a lot on the development of batteries.”