Anybody expecting to see autonomous vessels up and running in the 2020s may be in for disappointment, according to a cautious report issued by law firm Kennedys. While the technology and appetite for autonomous operations are certainly present, could their much vaunted adoption have proven a tad over-optimistic? Having surveyed more than 6,000 representatives from the transport and insurance sectors based in Australia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK and the US, the Kennedys report claims that it will “take decades, not years” for unmanned vessels to become an established presence in the maritime industry.
The report provides an interesting breakdown of attitudes by country, and compares the marine sector to other modes of transport. Some states seem more keen to embrace autonomous technology than others – for instance, China and Singapore would appear to have more faith in these solutions than cynics such as Hong Kong and the UK. Additionally, respondents to the Kennedys survey didn’t seem to have as much trouble embracing the concept of aerial delivery drones, for example; it’s when passengers are added to the equation that confidence levels wilt.
Even so, the report indicates that boats score very low when it comes to levels of ‘public comfort’ regarding autonomous transport; an average of just 24% from the six territories canvassed gave crew-free vessels the thumbs-up, compared to 33% for private driverless cars and 40% for unmanned trains. Safety concerns were deemed the biggest hurdle to adoption, as identified by 67% of respondents, while 63% were reluctant to make the leap from ‘human judgement’ to computer-driven operations.
Kennedys adds: “The exacting regulatory standards imposed on ships by IMO and the flag states where the ships are registered will pose a challenge around connectivity between ships and shore, particularly for the OEMs. Bad weather conditions and navigation into port may require manual control, [and] enabling high-speed internet connection while at sea, to control and monitor vessels, is costly and difficult, potentially taking decades to implement.”
Michael Biltoo, partner at Kennedys (pictured above), comments: “The challenges that face the maritime sector are particular and exacting: from multinational regulatory frameworks to barriers of data transfer while offshore, achieving the consensus necessary to facilitate global fleets of automated ships will be crucial in achieving marine autonomy.
However, this isn’t to say that greater integration of autonomous solutions into onboard life isn’t worth striving for. The Kennedys report also highlights what it deems to be some of the clear-cut benefits enabled by this technology. For instance, autonomous solutions could assist the marine industry in achieving environmental goals. “IMO’s anti-pollution measures and energy efficiency standards can be met through step change in ship design with growing use of data-driven autonomous and connected vehicle technology,” the report states.
Monitoring of engine performance, to prevent unscheduled maintenance and lengthy spells in drydock, is another potential benefit, in terms of both safety and cost savings. Also, with far fewer school-leavers opting for a career at sea than in the past, unmanned vessels could address the “existential challenge” of an ageing workforce and crew shortages, the report claims.