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Autonomy – Challenges and opportunities for short sea shipping

The requirement to reduce maritime emissions in the next decade has brought this reality ever closer; it is not something to drop into the pending tray. If we do not make plans now, we stand little chance of even scratching the surface of the targets.

30 June 2021

Commercial Maritime

Autonomy – Challenges and Opportunities for Short Sea Shipping

As a reminder, the initial IMO GHG strategy envisages, in particular, a reduction in carbon intensity of international shipping (to reduce CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40% by 2030, pursuing efforts towards 70% by 2050, compared to 2008); and that total annual GHG emissions from international shipping should be reduced by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. The implications of this are profound and I would like to extract some critical elements to reach the targets.

Technology innovations

On the plus side, customers of maritime trade are shifting their own emphasis and demanding to know what plans are in place to achieve zero emissions in shipping. Technology is now presenting some viable and tested solutions, complemented by effective use of Artificial Intelligence, leading to the true benefits of Machine Learning.

There are some exciting and innovative ship designs, command and control systems, novel power trains, and energy source options now available, including wind systems and foils. Most interestingly, it is becoming clear that customers are showing a willingness to pay a premium to ensure that their freight is moved at zero emission rates.

This will be much easier to realise in new build short sea shipping, rather than the larger fleets. Many coastal ships are more than 30 years old and cannot realistically be retro-fitted with the best technologies to meet the new targets.

Economically, the figures do not work to do this, and it is impractical to cram what is needed within existing ship construction layouts. So, the opportunity to start from scratch is clear, which is great for industry.

Benefits of autonomy

The removal of human system and space requirements from ships through autonomy opens up a range of possibilities. The overall power demand will be significantly reduced and the additional space onboard will result in increased cargo loads in ships, which can still use smaller ports to reduce the overall road transport requirements. These are essential factors which illustrate why the commercial business cases show that this must be done.

This does not spell the end of life at sea for seafarers, as so many ships will continue to require embarked crews. The balance is always likely to favour crewed vessels. In addition, there will be a need for experienced mariners to staff the Remote Control Centres which will monitor and control un-crewed vessels. New skills will be necessary, and this will provide exciting career options for those coming ashore from their seagoing jobs and those wishing to enter the maritime domain.

In summary, autonomy in un-crewed ships is now achievable as one part of the quest to reduce emissions in shipping. There are challenges, but strong collaborations are showing how these can be mitigated and overcome, and these are far outweighed by the opportunities they present for the movement of coastal and inland waterways freight. These are currently the subject of a FEED Study for Short Sea vessels led by ZULU Associates, with BMT and Lloyds Register. Most significantly, they should result in safer navigation for all.

About the Author

James Fanshawe, CBE

Director, Zulu Associates

James Fanshawe, CBE

Director, Zulu Associates

James Fanshawe CBE, retired from the Royal Navy in 2005 after Commanding HMS HURWORTH, CLEOPATRA and FEARLESS, the UK Task Group and the Devonport Flotilla. He was the Director of Plans (J5) at the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters.
James works within a mixed commercial portfolio. He is a Director of ZULU Associates and The Anglo Belgian Shipping Company. He is the Director of Maritime Strategy for Drone Major Group and a Board Advisor to SEA-KIT International. He chairs the UK’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group, which has released Industry Codes of Practice for the safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Ship Systems. He is a member of the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Steering Group and the MASG Council, and is the moderator for the UNECE work on Autonomy on Inland Waterways.

Focus | June 2021

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