Sunde (Norway) - At a 2-km distance from Norway’s port of Sunde, the engineers at Wärtsilä gave the go-ahead to the captain to remove his hands from the ferry’s rudder controls, and just wait for the ship to dock on its own. This new autodocking system that the Finnish group is testing is now just one step away from entering the market. All ten tests utilizing a ferry, that “naturally had no passengers on board”, pointed out Egil Hystad, general manager for market innovation at Wärtsilä Norway, “were successful.” Such an advance in automation is supported by industrial planners, partly as a form of marketing, but mainly for the high-tech features it involves.
At yesterday’s forum key sector players were in attendance. Rolls Royce, one of the big players in shipping, has a clear timeline that the firm intends to keep: “It began with autonomous ships in 2013, which at the time were still on the drawing board,” said Henrik Grönlund, sales manager for Remote & Autonomous Operations at Rolls Royce, “and extends to the launch this year of the “intelligent awareness” system. It’s designed to avoid collisions between ships on particularly busy routes, thus increasing safety of crews, already engaged in complicated and difficult manoeuvres, usually also physically demanding.
Efficiency and cost reductions, on the other hand, are the driving forces behind the Automatic Crossing System, a technology that charts optimal route settings in terms of speed and fuel-savings. The actual application of total autonomous technology for vessels is currently limited to some sectors; it’s already a reality, for instance, in remotely controlled tugs by the firm Svitzer. The Rolls Royce timeline isn’t exactly swift when it comes to predicting when autonomous ships will begin operating: “2020 will be the year for remotely controlled ships, and five years after that will be the turn for autonomous container ships”, with yet another decade before the technology operates over high-seas routes, those that cross the oceans connecting the continents.
The great driver behind this innovation revolution, as Peter Due, in charge of automation projects for Norway’s firm Kongsberg, points out, is the economic factor. In addition to the ship Yara Birkeland, the Norwegian group is developing a series of drone vessels for different uses in ports. There’s even a firefighting vessel in case of fires on ships, a safer option for this kind of dangerous operations. Safety is then another factor behind the rolling-out of this technology in the shipping sector. Complete safety however, is still elusive, as autonomous ships are vulnerable to an attack by hackers. On that score perhaps, things are less certain.