Unmanned ocean: ghost ships go out to sea

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Unmanned ocean: ghost ships go out to sea
Unmanned ocean: ghost ships go out to sea

While we worry that self-driving cars will leave drivers unemployed, there are growing signs that robots will soon leave sailors on the beach. Moreover, both the merchant fleet and the military.


Yara birkeland

The world's first autonomous cargo ship is planned to be launched this year. It will be a small electric container ship designed to carry 100-150 containers. But its emergence could be a landmark moment for the global shipping industry, which is truly facing a revolutionary change.

Yara Birkeland - this name will be given to the ship, a joint project of one of the world's largest suppliers of mineral fertilizers, the Norwegian company Yara International, and the Norwegian group of companies Kongsberg Gruppe, one of whose lines of business is navigation systems.

As early as 2019, the container ship is slated to begin transporting fertilizer along a 37-mile route off the southern coast of Norway from Yara International's production site in Porsgrunn to the port of Larvik. According to the company, the vessel is expected to eliminate the use of trucks, which make 40,000 trips annually through urban areas in the south of the country.


The ship will cost $ 25 million to build, about three times the cost of a regular ship of the same size. However, an unmanned vessel can save up to 90% of annual operating costs by eliminating fuel and crew costs.

Despite the fact that the vessel is being designed as an autonomous one, at the first stage of its operation the crew will still be present on board. Initially, the control post will be located on the ship. It will then move to the shore and become the remote control center. Ultimately, the ship will move independently under supervision from the shore. To do this, the container ship will use a global positioning system, radar, cameras and sensors. He will be able to independently navigate the route, maneuver among other ships and moor to the pier.

By the time Yara Birkeland reaches full autonomy, rules are expected to be in place to regulate the use of autonomous vessels. And once that happens, according to Petter Ostbo, Yara's production manager who leads the project, the company will begin building larger vessels that could operate on longer routes. For example, transporting the company's mineral fertilizers from Holland to Brazil across the Atlantic Ocean.

Svitzer Hermod

Rolls-Royce and the Danish towing company Svitzer successfully demonstrated the world's first remotely controlled vessel in Copenhagen harbor this June. The 28-meter tug Hermod, built last year at the Turkish shipyard Sanmar, was chosen as a demonstration model.


The tug is equipped with the Rolls-Royce Dynamic Positioning system, which is a key link in the remote control system. Radars and sensors are installed on board Hermod, which allow the dispatcher located in the remote operations center to navigate the ship reliably and safely using special software. However, during the demonstration of the capabilities of the system, both the captain and the crew were on board to ensure the safe return of the tug to the shore in the event of a system failure.

AAWA project

The creation of a shore-driven tug is just an episode in Rolls-Royce's ambitious plans.The British company, whose name became known primarily due to the luxury cars it once produced (now Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd belongs to BMW AG), is the world's second largest manufacturer of aircraft engines and one of the largest manufacturers of ship engines and power equipment. …


Today Rolls-Royce Holdings also spearheads the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications program, which brings together universities, shipbuilders, equipment manufacturers and many others working to make autonomous ships a reality. The project was opened in March 2015 and is being implemented to this day. By 2020, according to the company, the first autonomous and remotely controlled vessels will already go to sea.

Last year, Oscar Lewander, Rolls-Royce Marine's vice president for innovation, speaking at a symposium on autonomous ship technology in Amsterdam, noted that the technologies needed to create remotely controlled and fully autonomous ships already exist. … The AAWA project is testing arrays of sensors in various operational and climatic conditions off the coast of Finland. “By the end of the decade, we will see a remote controlled ship in commercial operation,” Levander said. The project also has the support of shipowners and operators. The sensor arrays are being tested aboard Finferries' 65-meter Stella, which operates in the Baltic Sea.

But in addition to equipping unmanned vehicles with numerous cameras and sensors designed to replace the eyes and ears of the operator located at a remote control center, it is also necessary to solve the problem of transferring the collected information to the shore. The only way to communicate with a ship in the ocean is satellite communication. But in this case, it is required to transfer significant amounts of data, and modern satellite communication facilities do not yet have sufficient bandwidth, which, accordingly, is a significant deterrent for the use of remotely controlled vessels. Next-generation satellites can solve these problems and reduce the associated communication costs. For example, last year the satellite company Inmarsat, also participating in the AAWA project, launched the Fleet Xpress service for sea freight carriers, which provides them with more reliable communications and the ability to transfer large amounts of data.

But in addition to developing technologies, for the emergence of robotic ships, it is necessary to solve a number of problems related to safety, navigation and legal issues. Modern maritime regulations prohibit the operation of ships without crew, although automation advocates expect them to be relaxed. The issue of rendering assistance to ships and people in distress at sea is also unclear. Such a duty is imposed on the captains of all ships located near the site of the shipwreck. There is also the issue of compensation for damage from collisions involving robotic ships. All these tasks are planned to be solved within the framework of the AAWA project.

Sea hunter

It would be strange if unmanned technologies were developed only in civilian navigation. In the military sphere, similar developments are also underway, and somewhere they are even ahead of civilians. Last year, the United States launched a full-scale prototype of an autonomous ship designed to carry out independent patrol duty for several months. The demonstrator ship was developed by DARPA and the defense company Leidos as part of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program and built by Vigor Industrial in Portland.


The displacement of the ship, named Sea Hunter, is 145 tons. Its own weight is 135 tons, including 40 tons of fuel. The structure is a trimaran (central building with two outriggers) 40 meters long.

Designed by Sea Hunter to track diesel-electric submarines, it is capable of sailing on its own for months with minimal human intervention. It is equipped with on-board sensors to detect other ships and obstacles, and the on-board computer allows the ship to maneuver between other ships and other obstacles while respecting basic navigation rules.

As Scott Littlefield, project manager for DARPA, noted, one of the biggest challenges was equipping the vessel with an autonomous control system. After all, the ship is obliged to adhere to the Convention on International Rules for Preventing Collisions of Ships at Sea. The automated system must clearly understand when a ship should give way to other ships and when to stay on its course. In this case, the change of course should be made in such a way that it would be noticed and correctly interpreted on the oncoming vessel. “To some extent, we want the maneuver to look like it’s being performed by a human,” says Littlefield.

At the time of launch, Sea Hunter was equipped with a removable control station to accommodate personnel, which will be on the ship during the entire testing period. It will be removed when it becomes clear that the "Sea Hunter" is able to work independently.

The $ 23 million anti-submarine ship will face two years of testing before entering service with the US Navy. The operating cost of the Sea Hunter is expected to represent only a fraction of the cost of operating a crewed destroyer.

If the tests are successful, in the future such ships will be able to equip with weapons and use for anti-submarine and anti-mine missions. But if weapons are installed on the ship, then, as explained by US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, a person will always make a decision on its use remotely.

Unmanned boats from CASC

The Chinese navy is also trying to keep up in this direction and plans to put into service unmanned boats. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) unveiled a line of unmanned boats at the International Ocean Science and Technology exhibition this September. True, they were shown not at sea, but so far only at the company's exhibition stand. The line includes three models designed to perform various tasks in the Chinese Navy.


The youngest model in the line is the 8, 8-meter boat B850, designed for high-speed maritime patrol and expeditionary operations. It can reach speeds of up to 40 knots and perform autonomous operations throughout the day. The A1150 is larger: it has a length of 11.5 meters and can be used as a survey vessel. The 15-meter C1500 is designed to combat submarines.

The main armament of unmanned boats is a combat module with a 7, 62- or 12, 7-mm machine gun. At the stand, a mock-up of the B850 boat is shown with additional armament in the form of missile launchers of various calibers. In addition, the drone is equipped with reconnaissance equipment, a sonar and a standard quadcopter, which allows to significantly expand the viewing radius. A1150 and C1500 boats can also be equipped with various small arms, missile and torpedo weapons. Thanks to the latest unmanned boats, according to their developers, the Chinese Navy will be able to effectively track threats in the water, above water and in the air, as well as neutralize them without risk to sailors.

Elbit Systems Seagull

The Israeli defense company Elbit last year unveiled the 12-meter unmanned boat Seagull, designed for various missions, but primarily for clearing sea mines and searching for submarines.


The boat is equipped with an operations planning system and can autonomously stay at sea for 96 hours, while maintaining communication with the dispatch center.The Seagull can be operated both from the mother ship and from the coastal station. Communication with the ground control center is carried out via a satellite or conventional radio communication channel.

The boat is equipped with torpedoes to counter underwater threats and an electronic warfare system. On board is an underwater unmanned vehicle used to search for mines. Some of the sea mines floating on the surface or shallow depths, the Seagull is capable of destroying using a remotely controlled 12.7mm machine gun in the bow.

The sonars, radars and sensors placed on the boat can detect both small objects, such as divers, and huge nuclear submarines underwater, even if they use stealth technologies. The computer system on board the boat contains a database with the characteristics of 135 types of nuclear and 315 diesel submarines.

Seagull may soon enter service with the Israeli Navy, as announced after test torpedo firing in the Haifa area. “The tests have shown the boat's unique ability to detect and engage submarines in addition to the ability to locate and destroy sea mines,” said Ofer Ben-Dov, Elbit's vice president of naval systems. He also noted that until now, such operations could only be carried out by manned ships. The Israeli navy will be able to use such unmanned boats to protect drilling rigs in the Mediterranean from Hezbollah mines or Iranian submarines. The company says that only a few of these robotic boats can easily replace an anti-submarine ship with a crew of 40 people.

When creating a marine drone, Elbit Systems engineers relied on their experience in creating unmanned aerial vehicles, which the company has been developing and operating for a long time, and the Silver Marlin unmanned boat, released by the company in 2007.


So, if earlier ships without a crew on board were the subject of sea tales, then in the near future this is quite a reality. A person does not have to go to sea to operate the vessel and maintain its systems. "Captains" of the future will simultaneously control the movement of several ships located in different points of the oceans. And all this without leaving the control center. And in the evening to go home after the shift. No romance. However, already now work, which involves a long stay outside the home and away from the family, is becoming less and less attractive. Anyway, for people in developed countries.

The absence of a crew on board promises significant economic benefits. Count how many rooms and systems on the ship are intended for the crew to live and work. If we get rid of all this, then it will be possible to reduce the costs of building and operating the vessel, including fuel costs. This leaves more space for the cargo. If unmanned vehicles of the future will have premises for accommodating people, then only for temporary ones - for the period of test operation or emergency repair at sea.


Reducing fuel consumption is possible not only by reducing the mass of the ship by reducing the equipment needed to find people on board. A vessel without a crew can stay at sea much longer than with people. No one is in a hurry home, there are no expenses for food and crew salaries. Many cargoes do not require hasty delivery. This means that you can choose the optimal speed of the vessel, at which the fuel consumption for each nautical mile will be minimal.

Thus, not only the desire to reduce the cost of crew labor is motivated by the developers of unmanned vessels. Although it is too. According to Moore Stephens LLP, an accounting and consulting company in the shipping industry, the crew of a large cargo ship accounts for about 44% of total daily operating expenses.

The advantages of unmanned ships for the navy are even more obvious. And even if there is also savings on costs, the main task is to save the lives of seafarers. In addition, the tasks that the military put before such ships are much broader. Military robotic ships can be used not only for mine clearance, countering submarines, but also for reconnaissance, electronic warfare, detection, tracking and destruction of targets of various degrees of remoteness. Unmanned vehicles have an undeniable advantage as a combat platform for deploying weapons. In addition, unmanned robots can act both singly and together. A swarm of cheap kamikaze drones can be a nightmare for the enemy fleet. The absence of a crew gives a significant advantage both in battle and during long missions without entering the base.

Taking a man "overboard", according to Rolls-Royce, will begin with harbor tugs, or ferries, transporting cars from one coast to another. And they will appear on the market in the next couple of years. Autonomous ocean-going ships are already a matter of 10-15 years. However, the future does not always come to everyone at once. Autonomous ships will share the sea with the usual ones for a long time, but the crews of the latter will more and more often observe on the horizon ships slowly moving their course without a single person on board. Of course, the crews will remain somewhere. It is unlikely, for example, that cruise ships with passengers will go out into the ocean without a crew. But they will be automated as much as possible.

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