Unmanned 'ghost' ships could set sail as early as 2020

Automation seems to be the future, with top tech firms racing to dominate drone delivery by land, sea and air.

The world's first unmanned ghost ships could take to the seas by the end of the decade, but they also pose unique problems that will need to be overcome.

In an article for The Conversation, Christian Matthews, head of maritime technology at Liverpool John Moores University, explains the challenges ahead.

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Norway-based Yara has revealed its plans to develop the world’s first all-electric and autonomous container ship that is predicted to remove 747 tons (678 tonnes) of carbon dioxide from the air by reducing diesel-powered truck haulage by 40,000 journeys a year

Norway-based Yara has revealed its plans to develop the world's first all-electric and autonomous container ship that is predicted to remove 747 tons (678 tonnes) of carbon dioxide from the air by reducing diesel-powered truck haulage by 40,000 journeys a year

THE YARA BIRKELAND  

Researchers have developed the world's first autonomous, zero-emissions cargo ship, The Yara Birkeland. 

Developed by agriculture company Yara International ASA and high-technology systems firm Kongsberg Gruppen, will be capable of autonomous mooring and route planning. 

The fully battery-powered vessel will be loaded and unloaded automatically using electric cranes.

The vessel will have a GPS system allowing it to navigate itself and around other boats autonomously, with the aid of a radar, cameras and sensors.

Three control centers are set to handle the ship's operation. 

The Yara Birkeland isn't an ordinary cargo ship. 

If all goes well then the vessel, currently being built for a Norwegian agricultural fertiliser company, will become the world's first fully autonomous cargo ship when it launches in 2020.

Current international shipping law states that ocean-going vessels must be properly crewed, so fully autonomous, unmanned ships aren't allowed in international waters. 

As such, the Yara Birkeland will have to operate close to the Norwegian coast at all times, carrying out regular short journeys between three ports in the south of the country.

But change is afoot in the maritime sector, and earlier this year the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO) began discussions that could allow unmanned ships to operate across oceans. 

This raises the prospect of crewless 'ghost' ships crisscrossing the ocean, with the potential for cheaper shipping with fewer accidents.

Several Japanese shipping firms, for example, are reportedly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the technology. 

And British firm Rolls-Royce demonstrated the world's first remote-controlled unmanned commercial ship earlier this year.

However, removing experienced crew from ships means that any accidents that do occur could be far more severe. 

Three control centres are set to handle the Yara Birkeland's operation. These centers will handle emergency and exception handling, condition monitoring, operational monitoring, decision support and surveillance of the ship and its surroundings and other safety aspects

Three control centres are set to handle the Yara Birkeland's operation. These centers will handle emergency and exception handling, condition monitoring, operational monitoring, decision support and surveillance of the ship and its surroundings and other safety aspects

On top of this, many practical, regulatory and technological barriers remain in turning the world's cargo ships into a fully autonomous fleet.

And that could mean it's a long time before it's actually profitable to invest in the technology. 

The IMO's Maritime Safety Committee sat for the 98th time in June 2017, starting discussions that may well lead to a change in the rules set by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. 

But indications are that it is likely to be a long and complex process. 

The issues relating to the safety and economics of unmanned ships have barely started to be considered. 

A lot of work will need to be done before solutions are found, or agreements are reached.

Fewer accidents? 

One of the biggest issues is the safety of solely relying on computers to operate ships over vast ocean distances. 

Some think that autonomous ships would have fewer accidents because

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