Robot Ships: Huge Remote Controlled Vessels Are Setting Sail

Robot Ships Huge Remote Controlled Vessels Are Setting Sail - Merchant Navy Info - News

You can glimpse it in a Norwegian fjord, where a huge, lime-green vessel is being put through its paces. At first glimpse, it seems like any other robot ship. Look closer, though, and you suddenly see all the hi-tech kit: cameras, microphones, radars, GPS, and all manner of satellite communications.

“We have added a lot of extra equipment and designed her especially to be what we call ‘robotic,'” says Colin Field, the head of remote systems at US-UK company Ocean Infinity (OI).

The ship is part of OI’s new “Armada” – a fleet of 23 vessels – that will survey the seabed for offshore wind farm operators and check underwater infrastructure for the oil and gas industry.

Strikingly, for a ship that’s 78m (255ft) in length, there are only 16 people on board. A traditional ship carrying out the same kind of work would need a crew of 40 or 50. OI believes it can still decrease the numbers further.

That’s because many roles can be done hundreds of miles away on land.

Marian Meza Chavira is learning to pilot underwater robots from a remote control center.

Entering the company’s remote operations center in Southampton is like walking onto a futuristic film set. The dimly lit room is vast, with 20 “bridge stations,” each fitted with gaming-like controls and touch screens.

Operators sitting in their high-backed chairs watch a bank of monitors displaying a live stream from the ship’s cameras and sensors.

Remotely Operated Vehicles in Autonomous Shipping

A key test for this new working method is commanding an underwater robot – or remotely operated vehicle (ROV). It is done to descend from the deck to scan the seafloor.

“It is amazing how everything is automated,” says ROV trainee pilot Marian Meza Chavira. “In some ways, it’s more comfortable here than offshore because you have many more cameras for context.”

Autonomy, robotics, remote operation, and artificial intelligence will transform all transport sectors. Maritime will be no different, and experiments are underway around the globe.

The Yara Birkeland carries fertilizer to a port for export. The plan is for it to work without any crew.

In Norway, for example, an 80m (262ft) electric container ship runs back and forth between a fertilizer plant and a local port. In Belgium and Japan, ferries autonomously navigate between destinations. They are berthing and unberthing at each location. In China, large autonomous container ships shuttle between coastal cities.

The advantages are evident. With fewer people, ships can be more undersized, requiring less fuel and a much-reduced carbon footprint.

Rudy Negenborn studies autonomous shipping at Delft University of Technology. He says the hi-tech systems required to replace the crew are developing quickly but still have some way to go.

“We have had autopilots that let ships follow a path independently. That is not so challenging. The challenges come when interacting with other traffic or a port. Also,when there are unexpected situations or bad weather cases,” he told BBC News.

“But in the end, this is going to lead to safer, more efficient and more endurable transport over water. I am sure about that.”

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