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Disruptive technologies drive sustainability in the shipping industry

Since 1850, the average ship crew size has been reduced from some 250 to around 15 today. The technologies needed to make remotely controlled, autonomous and unmanned shipping a reality exist today. Vessels are already equipped with technology to see at night and through fog and snow – better than the human eye – and more ships are fitted with systems to manage and transmit large volumes of data. The technology is in place and the time has come to move more shipping operations ashore. Instead of having a crew of 15 sailing in a storm in the North Sea, people can stay in a control room on shore, where the same person could monitor and steer many ships.

DNV GL's 'ReVolt' unmanned shipping concept.

DNV GL’s ‘ReVolt’ unmanned shipping concept.

Get ready for shipping 4.0

More autonomous shipping has the potential to bring benefits to the industry, their customers and to the society at large. As ships become more connected, these 10 main drivers will in my opinion gradually transform the shipping industry towards new business models based on more remote control, more autonomy and reduced requirements to onboard manning.

  1. Increased safety. Human error is a significant part of 70% to 80% of all accidents at sea. Replacing human control with reliable technology has the potential to increase safety radically.
  2. Reduced operational cost. Unmanned or partly unmanned shipping has a significant potential to reduce cost. Manning costs typically represent more than 30% of the total ship operation costs and around 10% of average trip rates.
  3. Reduced construction costs. No superstructure, accommodation and deckhouses will reduce the construction costs (no air conditioning, heating, ventilation, etc.) Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable. To eliminate or reduce the need for onboard crew will radically simplify vessel design and reduce construction and maintenance costs.
  4. Increased environmental sustainability. Slow steaming is maybe the most obvious approach to achieve this objective. Lowering the fuel consumption of a vessel reduces its emissions in parallel. Slower sailing speeds become economically viable if crew costs can be reduced. Hence, the effects of unmanned autonomous vessels on a wider deployment of slow steaming will not only contribute towards economic but also significantly towards the environmental sustainability of maritime transport.
  5. Increased social sustainability. Seagoing professions are increasingly being perceived as unattractive. Sea passages are long and often lacking in variety. Port calls that might offer some change to the daily routine are short, allowing for little time to spend ashore. Mariners are confronted with a disconnection from their social environment due to the long time periods they spend away from family and friends. The concept of unmanned autonomous vessels offers an opportunity for improvement by increasing the attractiveness of seafaring. The seafarers of the future could control and monitor the routing and navigation of the unmanned ship from a shoreside operations centre, plan the vessel’s maintenance schedule, or even pilot the ship during its approach to a port. At the same time, they could live closer to their families with more regular working hours.
  6. Stronger competence base. As the operations, tasks and jobs gradually move from sea to shore the competence requirements will develop and attract talents with new complementary competencies that will strenghten the shipping industry.
  7. Increased competitiveness. Smarter ships with increased cargo capacity (no superstructure & deckhouses) and reduced operational cost will make the shipping industry more competitive compared with other modes of transportation. For example, there is potential to increase trade volumes by moving cargo from shore to sea, reducing the density of polluting cargo trucks on the roads.
  8. Reduced risk of piracy. There would be no human hostage situations, and a remote-controlled ship could be “shut down” from shore. This would make it more difficult for pirates to take over control of the vessel.
  9. Opening up new opportunities and solutions. A ship design without superstructure, deckhouses and equipment to facilitate an onboard crew will have more space for cargo. It will open up new solutions for automatic loading and unloading. Other examples of new opportunities could be where small unmanned vessels replace the need of more expensive city infrastructure, such as bridges.
  10. New business models. Going forward we will see business model innovation through the entire value chain of shipping, on top of a more advanced and connected ship technology platform. For example, U.K.-based freight forwarder Marine Transport International Ltd has started using blockchain technology to create real-time digital ledgers of shipping data for use by port officials, cargo owners and others along global supply chains. In 2014, Maersk began installing 3-D printers on ships in order to explore and test onboard printing of spare parts. The U.S. Navy is examining new possibilities for autonomy in naval missions. It recently put vessels to the test in a demonstration in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

The ReVolt unmanned shipping concept

The ReVolt is a prototype of DNV GL’s vision for the future of coastal cargo shipping. It is intended to serve as an inspiration for equipment manufacturers, shipyards and shipowners as they endeavour to develop new solutions for a safer and more sustainable future. With no crew, there is no need for crew facilities. There is a resulting increase in loading capacity and lower operating and maintenance costs. Compared to diesel-run ships, ReVolt could save up to USD34 million during its estimated 30-year lifetime – more than USD1 million annually.

The road ahead

The road towards connected autonomous shipping will be stepwise. It will start with small specialized cargo vessels for costal and local traffic. There are many levels of autonomy and we will gradually see more automation for all vessels as technology matures. Different levels of autonomy will gradually expand to increasingly wider operational areas, as well as larger ships. Regulatory and legal frameworks need to be developed to facilitate a safe and responsible uptake of new technology and solutions.

Unmanned shipping has huge potential to drive economic, environmental and social sustainability in the shipping industry. I am happy to see a lot of exciting development taking place in the industry.

The Norwegian Shipping industry is actively pushing the agenda forward. Recently the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration agreed to open the world’s first autonomous ship testing area. The Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) brings together and shares information to organizations interested in autonomous ships.

This post originally appeared on Bjørn Kj. Haugland’s LinkedIn blog.

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