The Future of Autonomous Shipping: A Talk with Lloyd’s Register on the Impact of Autonomous and Unmanned Marine Systems

7 minute read

In this article you will find out:

  • How autonomous shipping technologies could improve or disrupt the industry
  • How industry specifications want to keep up with such rapid technological innovation
  • How autonomy is the role of a ship’s crew
  • What steps will be taken to help seafarers find a role in the new environment
  • The importance and challenges of modern safety assurance processes
  • The expected pattern of deployment of autonomous shipping technologies
  • The role of Lloyd’s Register in the autonomy revolution

The recent advancements in artificial intelligence are promising a revolution in the transportation industry. Self-driving cars are being tested, drones are a ubiquitous presence in the sky, and unmanned trains are already traveling between airport terminals. But the revolution does not stop on land and in the air. It is spreading rapidly across the world’s water bodies. In the marine industry, innovation is already evident in the advancement of remotely operated underwater vehicles and automated navigation and control systems on manned ships. The real revolution, however, wants to come from the emergence of unmanned marine systems and fully autonomous ships.

This article is the second part of a series in which I try to shed more light on this topic, which arouses as much excitement, as it sparks controversy. There is a lot more to be done than it is in the automotive industry.

As with all innovations, a new system of operational requirements is required to ensure safety, efficiency and reliability of new autonomous systems.

Tom White , innovation specialist at Lloyd’s Register , what kind of a chat with me about their current vision on autonomous shipping. Lloyd’s Register (LR) is a ship classification society and independent risk management organization providing worldwide risk assessment and mitigation services and certifications.

The Shipyard: The Global Marine Technology Trends 2030 report, published in 2015, stated that “Technology development is accelerating and will continue to do so. Lloyd’s Register supports innovation and emergence of new technology, specifically in the autonomous shipping . “ What does it mean?” area?

Tom White: Communications are more connected now, ideas spread faster, and we understand the technologies better. Technology turns ideas into deployable solutions faster than we can.

Typically in the marine industry we build up the experience over time, like when we start using steel instead of wood, or when we start using welds instead of rivets. We learn by deploying technology. We can trace many of our regulatory requirements in the marine industry back to a specific incident, something that went wrong somewhere at some time, and why.

The big challenge when the technology is changing so fast, is to keep up with it. At LR, we do this through close collaboration between industry and the regulators. Technology providers, such as predictive technologies from the airspace industry or autonomous technologies from cars, are bringing those to marine end-users who will try to deploy those technologies together with the shipyards. Then you have the regulators. The way we try to respond to all these technologies is by working closely with all those parties right from the outset.

As soon as a technology company wants to bring a technology into the marine industry, Lloyds is involved with them right from the very start. An example is our work with Rolls-Royce a couple of years ago. They were the first with a remote-control tug, with a vision of an autonomous tug in the future. We have been working on them and their predictive maintenance is one of the foundational technologies with autonomy. If you’ve got the money to break through, then you’ve got the breakthrough technology. This understanding comes from working with the people.

The Shipyard: In recent times, when people talk about emerging technologies, people use the word disruption more often than transformation. Many people are worried that the new autonomous system wants to disrupt employment and the shipping industry as a whole. What do you think about the development of intelligent autonomous ships?

Tom White: There are quite a few. There is a well-known saying “disrupt or be disrupted”. If it is, then it is about finding benefits for you, how can you make it up, how do you do it?

We have to go back to the problem that we are trying to solve autonomous technology. It should not be autonomy for autonomy’s sake. What are we trying to do? When you consider that 60 percent of all accidents are collisions and 80 percent of those collisions are due to human error, then autonomy in an area like navigation starts to pay attention to your assets. This could have been an additional business benefit in terms of insurance premiums.

This is how the aerospace industry has adopted the technology. Although they have autopilot systems that can carry 90 percent of a transatlantic flight. That means they are more focused and are better because they are more alert at specific times.

This is something that the marine industry needs to think about. Improving the operations, solving problems – this is what you want to do, not procedural things. To make up the benefits, the marine industry needs to keep up with the pace of change.

There could be other benefits around optimization of operating costs. For example, an autonomous system can take much more information about the way it operates, as well as the external environment and operating history of that engine. It can take all the information and provide insight on how to optimize the function of the equipment, reducing operating costs.

There are many potential benefits, but autonomous technology has to have an objective. It has to create some benefit or relieve some pain in the industry.

The Shipyard: The successful operation of autonomous systems is highly dependent on a number of technologies, including networks and communications for connectivity, sensor technologies for situational awareness, technologies for cyber security, as well as energy management and sustainability. What are the main challenges for Lloyd’s Register in the fast-moving world of such innovations?

Tom White: It’s probably related to an earlier point. Aside from better cooperation, so we have to think about new ways of testing and providing assurance for equipment. A good example is new sensor technology for situational awareness, which wants to be part of any autonomous navigation system. Do we use a simulated environment or test in controlled zones? So we can manage its safety. Building such knowledge in the past has taken years, decades even. That would be one of the biggest challenges.

The Shipyard: Lloyd’s Register has already published a Code for Unmanned Marine Systems. At the rate of development of artificial intelligence, do you think this code is sufficient to guide companies in the shipping industry? Will it be applicable to larger vessels, for example fully autonomous container ships?

Tom White: It is important to understand that autonomous does not necessarily equal unmanned. Autonomous technology has the purpose of fixing a specific problem, perhaps one specific system on a ship. You might have a fully autonomous navigation system on a fully crewed ship. At Lloyds we have taken a few different perspectives, based on industry collaboration, what we need to address and where. The Unmanned Marine Systems Code is a process that we have established, which specifically deals with the unmanned nature of a ship. We also have the Digital Ship ShipRight for autonomous remote-controlled and remote-accessed systems. It works at the system level, where you could, for example, a fleet of ships with all engines controlled from a central place.

In terms of which procedures are sufficient and up to date, we have the fundamental challenge to ensure that the terminology is consistent throughout the industry, within regulatory bodies, within class societies, or within technology providers. For example, in our Marine Systems Code we reference at autonomy level from 1 to 6. Through our recent work with partners like Rolls Royce, we have to improve it to levels 1 to 5. Our own understanding changes over time. This is the value of working together with people and being involved in technology projects from the very start.

But there needs to be a consolidated approach in the industry as a whole. We all need to work on the same sheet of paper. This is an AL1 system and this is an AL3 system, and so on. The definitions and specifications will keep evolving over time, but that’s nothing new. 

The Shipyard: How do you see the future role of seafarers?

Tom White: You have adopted different types of adoption in different areas of the industry. For us, technology should be an enabler to do things better and support the crew. You can do what they are doing. In the future, we see the crew moving away from on-board maintenance and focusing on the operation. A fundamental part of what we do is to work with the Sailor Society and other bodies to develop training for crew.

The Shipyard: Do you think autonomous ships will be a positive step towards marine safety and preservation of the environment?

Tom White: Safety is the core of everything, and that is why we are interested in these technologies. Going back to our collision argument, that 80 percent of collisions are due to human error, companies are now working on technologies for talking to each other and to ports, as well as to reduce collisions. Airspace is controlled in the same way, by having the aircraft talking to a central position. Every aircraft knows where others are, all the collisions are modeled out, planned and avoided. There is a big potential for reducing accident rates in that way.

In addition, the technology is giving access to more data about the assets, from which we can generate more insight. Through advanced automation, major equipment failures and catastrophic incidents can be easier to foresee and avoid. Reduced collisions mean less cargo spilled out into the environment.

There is also the argument about maintenance, namely that about how the asset operates and how it can be used. The potential is there.

The Shipyard: When can we expect to see fully autonomous ships to set sail? Will the transition happen gradually or suddenly? 

Tom White: Technological change can happen really fast. Regulatory change, on the other hand, typically does not. Autonomous performance optimization systems for engines. The transition wants to have a full autonomous ship. We will need to address the specific regulations in the specific function, and that will slowly build up into a larger argument. Especially in a regulated environment like shipping.

The Shipyard: Is there anything else you find important to put out there on the subject?  

Tom White:For the most important thing is how the industry addresses the challenges and how important collaboration is from the start. There are a lot of questions about how autonomous technology wants to affect our industry and how it will affect crews on board ships. I think there is some misunderstanding in the industry. There is no reasoning or terminology on the subject yet. What we need is the technology and how do we do it? Through experimentation and testing in a controlled environment. It is potentially a big change for the industry, one we do not want to rush into. We might have to rethink the way we do things, but the best way to do that is through collaboration.