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The world around us is changing and the maritime world is changing with it. Vast quantities of goods are transported around the globe, while there is an increasing need to reduce energy consumption and emissions into our environment. At the same time it is becoming more and more difficult to find sufficient crews to man our ships and safely navigate across the oceans. These are major challenges for the maritime industry. Challenges which are resulting in changes in technology of ships and infrastructure, changes in tasks and roles for maritime personnel and changes in business models.
The challenges we are facing also offer opportunities to rethink existing solutions and consider different approaches. This has sparked development of various new technologies. In the future, we could see fleets of uncrewed, zero-emission ships sailing our oceans, without human supervision. But there is still a long way to go. Sensors, computer vision, situational awareness algorithms, control technology and logic for autonomous operation are all rapidly developing. Autonomous navigation of ships is gradually becoming a reality. First in experimental settings and field labs, but in the not too distant future crewed and uncrewed vessels could be sharing our water ways.
However, uncrewed ships would not only require autonomous navigation, but also solutions for the other tasks currently carried out by the crew on board. Monitoring of equipment, maintenance and repairs, mooring the ship, loading and unloading of cargo, administrative tasks and even fire-fighting, these are all tasks that will have to be automated, or replaced by alternative approaches.
The role of seafaring crews will change. With increasing automation, part of their tasks may change or disappear, new tasks may be introduced and part of their current tasks could be executed from a shore control center. New tasks will require new skills. The use of shore control centers may allow operators to monitor and control multiple ships, thus reducing the number of crew members required to operate a ship. At the same time, shore based jobs may attract candidates that would not be interested in a job at sea, or people currently working in other sectors. Furthermore, completely uncrewed ships may not be the best solution in all cases. Complex voyages or specific tasks on board, like care for passengers, may still require a crew.
Uncrewed ships will need uncrewed machine rooms and this is where autonomous operation and emission reduction cross paths. Electrical systems and solutions with alternative energy carriers may be easier to automate than conventional machinery. This could be an extra motivation to include emission reduction in the design of future ships.
In the future, the described changes may completely alter the maritime industry, with the creation of new services, new logistic approaches and new business opportunities. We are sailing into new territories, with many unknowns and many questions to be answered. Not only the technical questions, but questions related to logistics, rules and regulations and safety need answering, as well as ethical questions.
Senior Project Manager Autonomy & Decision Support
Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN)