Slow steam ahead
Large vessels that transport cargo, oil and other goods over large distances require a lot of fuel and to save time they move fast. However,
Maritime transport within the EU faces challenges such as significant increases in transport volumes, growing environmental requirements and a shortage of seafarers. The concept of an autonomous ship would mean the unmanned vessels would move more slowly, be much more environmentally friendly and address the EU goals for reducing shipping related greenhouse gases. These redesigned vessels would be controlled by shore-based command centres. This shore based approach might also be make seafaring a more appealing career choice given they wouldn’t be spending long periods of time at sea and away from their families.
Dr. MacKinnon is working with researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden as part of a group called the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN).
MUNIN is co-funded by the EU and consists of eight partners with both scientific and industrial backgrounds located in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Ireland. Its aim is to develop a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator on shore. The shore based control centre and the human–machine interfaces of the project are what Dr. MacKinnon and his graduate student Yemao Man are working on. That means creating a virtual reality for the shore based control team so they can maintain situation awareness without actually being on the ship.
“The shore control centre controls the vessel once it departs port until it arrives at a port. Inbound and outbound from ports a real human, called a pilot, is put on ship to take it in or out,” explained Dr. MacKinnon.
However, if there was an emergency on board such as fire, Dr. MacKinnon admits that would present a huge challenge. “That scenario would take international cooperation. It would definitely require more pre-emptive maintenance schedules to prevent breakdowns as much as possible,” he explained. “The systems would always be monitored by the shore control centre. When the check engine light goes on, a remediation process would have to be in place.”
However, Dr. MacKinnon and the MUNIN team believe those challenges can be overcome and that the benefits of an autonomous vessel are worth it. As Dr. MacKinnon explains, “It’s a new way to manage energy on a global scale.”