If a Norwegian research group has its way, within 10 to 20 years sea captains and sailors will go the way of buggy whip-makers and blacksmiths.
Marintek, part of the SINTEF group in Norway, is working on a $1.9 million "Seatonomy" project to have cargo ships sailing the oceans completely without captains or crews, The Local
in Norway reports.
At any given time, there are 100,000 merchant cargo ships measuring up to 650 feet long operating in the world's oceans, according to researcher Ornulf Rodseth. Yet SINTEF and other developers believe that with modern technology, the ships can be operated safely and more cheaply without running into each other — even without an alert pair of seaman's eyes on watch.
Noting that human error is considered to be responsible for 75 percent of shipping accidents, Rodseth told ScienceNordic.com
, "There aren't many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today."
"The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications, and anti-collision measures already exists," Rodseth told Science Daily
. "Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems."
However, he adds, "It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry."
The project is a international effort
. German research firm Fraunhofer is working on the MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) project; Swedish firms are doing control center research; German firms are working on machinery and navigation; and Irish firms are looking into legal considerations, since maritime laws and regulations today assume that there are live people on board and operating the ships. Rolls Royce is also involved, as is Norwegian research firm Det Norske Veritas GL.
Cost incentives are causing the efforts to be taken very seriously in the shipping industry, Rodseth said. It is becoming more difficult to attract enough sailors to man the huge ships, even as the volume of goods to be transported increases.
In addition, he said, fuel is the most expensive part of any shipping operation, not salaries. While shippers today want to move cargoes as rapidly as possible to cut down on salary costs, if vessels were unmanned, they could move much more slowly, reducing speeds from 16 knots to 11 knots, burn less fuel, reduce pollution, and save money.
Operating from a control room onshore, a captain could maneuver as many as 10 ships simultaneously. Live crews likely would maneuver vessels in and out of ports, and initially, crews would be on board in the event of malfunctions.
"We’re talking about vessels moving slowly across the open ocean meeting very little in the way of traffic," Rodseth told ScienceNordic. "Radar will keep an eye on everything going on."
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