Rules of the sea rewritten to let unmanned ‘ghost’ cargo ships set sail

Hundreds of “ghost ships” could be plying the seas within a decade under plans to amend international rules that prohibit unmanned cargo vessels.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN agency that regulates shipping, will consider changing the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to allow ships with no captain or crew to travel between countries.

The shipping industry is keen to switch to autonomous ships, partly to avoid having to pay a crew, which can account for almost half a ship’s costs.

Unmanned ships could also improve safety because human error accounts for more than 60 per cent of groundings and collisions on EU registered ships, according to a report by the Technical University of Denmark presented to the maritime body. Furthermore the absence of a crew would make ships less vulnerable to pirates, who would have no one to take hostage and would be unable to steer a ship with no bridge.

The world’s first fully autonomous cargo ship is due to be launched next year in Norway

Shipping companies are already planning to launch autonomous ships to operate within coastal waters, where they do not need to comply with the convention. The world’s first fully autonomous cargo containership is due to be launched next year in Norway to transport fertiliser about 16 miles along the coast, replacing about 40,000 lorry journeys a year.

Rolls-Royce is also developing technology for ships that will operate autonomously in open water and be remotely controlled by a land-based “captain” when they are entering and leaving ports.

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee is meeting in London this week and is expected to approve a proposal today to appoint a group of experts to make recommendations on how to alter the convention to accommodate autonomous ships.

Ships trading internationally need to be compliant with SOLAS, which requires that they be “sufficiently and efficiently manned”. The expert group will consider how to delete the manning requirement and what safeguards need to be put in place.

The process of changing the rules is slow and likely to take at least three years. Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce, said unmanned ships would be operating by 2025 on short sea journeys between countries and thousands of miles between Europe and Asia by 2030. He said large oil and gas tankers would probably retain a handful of crew on board to act as a back-up in case autonomous systems failed.

Mr Levander said there would be an overall reduction in seafarers but jobs would be created at remote control centres on land, where a handful of people would monitor hundreds of ships. “We can provide a better working environment for them. They can go home to their family after work and don’t need to be away at sea for months and months,” he added.

He said autonomous ships would be lighter and up to 30 per cent more fuel-efficient. Their computers would use navigation tools and algorithms to plot the quickest routes, as well as using advanced collision avoidance systems.

Mr Levander admitted that such ships would be less able to rescue people from other vessels in distress, but he said their radar scanning systems would be better than a pair of human eyes at detecting a problem and reporting it. He even believes that unmanned ships will eventually be able to pick up injured sailors at sea.

Mogens Blanke, a professor of automation at the Technical University of Denmark, said unmanned ships would be better than human navigators at avoiding obstacles. However, ships travelling long distances were likely to retain a small maintenance crew. “If it gets stuck out in the ocean it’s a terribly long way to send a tugboat,” he said.

Source: The Times, 9 May 2017

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