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Charting a course towards autonomous shipping
03/05/2017 08:48:50

Charting a course towards autonomous shipping
Source: EC Research & Innovation
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 The MUNIN consortium consists of eight partners with both scientific and industrial backgrounds located in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Ireland.

Autonomous cargo ships could provide a safer, greener and more cost efficient means of moving goods around the world. And while further development is needed, they are feasible, say EU-funded researchers.

International shipping is hugely competitive and operates on a truly global scale. The sector is constantly looking for new ways of achieving efficiencies, as even minor improvements can translate into significant cost benefits. By assessing the feasibility of operating autonomous cargo ships – defined as vessels primarily controlled by automated on-board systems but monitored by a remote onshore operator – the EU-funded MUNIN project has been able to show that unmanned vessels (UMVs) could provide a safe and sustainable alternative to traditional shipping.

Demonstrating key advantages
“Autonomous shipping can bring significant advantages,” explains project coordinator Hans-Christoph Burmeister from Fraunhofer CML in Germany. “Reduced crew expense is often cited as a major economic efficiency, but the biggest potential is within the area of ship design. Removing crew totally from vessels would allow for a total new ship design with fewer life-support systems and thus reduced costs. We found that updating existing vessels to UMVs is simply not economically attractive, so ultimately, this does mean developing new ship designs.”

Through in-situ testing in the Norwegian Sea and the development of a simulation test-bed for autonomous navigation systems, the MUNIN project team was able to estimate that autonomous shipping could save at least 10 % in fuel costs, bringing environmental as well as economic gains. “We identified social benefits as well,” says Burmeister. “Moving nautical jobs from ship to shore is more family-friendly and removes the risk of fatigue that is often experienced by on-board personnel.”

The project tested new on-board and onshore technologies, including advanced sensor modules, autonomous navigation systems and engines, and monitoring control systems. In addition, the consortium defined the various technologies needed to assist on-shore staff in monitoring the status of autonomous ships. Together, the units provide all the information needed to control a ship during the deep-sea part of its voyage.

Charting a course to the future
With these findings, MUNIN has helped to pave the way for acceptance and interest in UMVs. “It should be noted that this was an initial feasibility study that now needs to be taken further in order to fully implement and realise the benefits of UMVs,” says Burmeister. “Over the course of this project, we found that a pure remotely controlled vessel at sea is not attractive due to cost and bandwidth availability issues; vessels need to have a certain amount of autonomous function in order to allow them to operate independently of continuous human interaction. The focus on shore should be more on monitoring and less on control than it is today.”

Burmeister also noted that further research is needed with respect to coastal navigation, remote manoeuvring and control as well as automated berthing. Promising prototypes such as automated lookout systems and automated collision assessment warnings also now need to be developed. The project also identified a need to update legal and liability issues in the maritime field in order to reflect the anticipated growth of unmanned vessels.

“Many of the tools developed in MUNIN have since been re-used in further research and implementation projects,” he continues. “MUNIN has helped to raise awareness and pave the way for other UMV initiatives, such as DNV GL’s ReVolt and RollsRoyce AAWA activities, and we have been invited as the keynote project to UMV conferences in Korea and Japan. So the work we initiated is very much being continued. An autonomous vessel testbed for DSME, one of the world’s largest ship builders, has also been constructed.”


View Factsheet MUNIN - Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks

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