Ready or not, autonomous vessels are coming
Mention autonomous vessels in certain quarters and you will sometimes be met with a world-weary sigh, perhaps a roll of the eyes and – more often than one might think – an expression along the lines of “I’ll believe it when I see it”.
For all the attention the subject of autonomous vessels has received of late, there remains a healthy degree of scepticism about their viability. The tendency is to believe that such talk is at best premature and at worst pie in the sky.
However, even the most hardened sceptic must be starting to question things, with a spate of recent news reports that suggest autonomous vessels not only will happen, but will happen sooner than many think.
Rolls-Royce, which has very much taken the lead on the championing of remote-controlled and autonomous vessels, recently revealed concept designs for an autonomous ship that could be managed remotely from a control centre, with Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce’s marine divison stating: “Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry…As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionise the landscape of ship design and operations.”
This has now been followed by Lloyds Register, which has recently launched guidance that sets out six different autonomy levels (AL) that will form the basis for the classification of autonomous ships.
‘AL 6’, the highest level, denotes a fully autonomous ship with no access required during a mission, while ‘AL 1’ is the lowest level of autonomy.
Luis Benito, LR’s head of innovation strategy and research, said of this: “Today, the market wants autonomous ships that can be operated with varying levels of control. So, we have now described and delivered the levels required to make decisions enabling the design, construction and operation of autonomous ships to take place. The levels provide a procedure to address the safety and practical issues required to meet classification, regulatory and market drivers.”
Given these advances and the momentum that now appears to be behind the move towards autonomous vessels, it seems almost certain that – sceptics notwithstanding – they are coming. And, what is more, it seems certain that their transformative effect on the industry will be well-nigh absolute.