Autonomous and unmanned vessels are portrayed as a key element for a competitive and sustainable European shipping industry in the future. Further, many new projects on autonomous maritime transprort are initiated currently accompanied by a lively discussen in the industry. But what do maritime stakeholders acutally think about the innovation of autonomous unmanned ships?
The MUNIN project was first to contribute to the realization of the vision of autonomous and unmanned vessels by developing and verifying a concept for an autonomous ship. Since the project has caused siginificant attention from the maritime sector a structured questionnaire was used to collect a wider external stakeholder perspective on autonomous shipping.
The results are not only interesting in themselves. On account to the fact that the innovation of an autonomous ship is still in a very early stage it is crucial to integrate a wider external view in any further developments since technological development is increasingly influenced by societal acceptance.
Main inputs for the design of the questionnaire were results of the MUNIN project while aspects that are discussed vividly in ongoing public and scientific debates were taken into consideration as well. In total the answers of 63 participants were evaluated whereof more than 40% have gained experience on board of a ship. This short summary will highlight the most important results to get an overview of the stakeholder opinion on autonomous vessels. More detailed information about the methology and further results of the survey can be found in the MUNIN report Qualitative assessment, and also in the section MUNIN Deliverables.
Overall a vast majority (70%) of maritime stakeholders in the survey indicate to have a very positive or positive perception of the concept of autonomous ships.
Shanker et al (2013) states, that unmanned autonomous vehicles have been operated for a considerable amount of time in many fields of transport and completely autonomous cars are expected to become reality before the end of the decade. Therefore participants were asked to give an estimate when autonomous ships would first become a reality. More than three-quarter expect the first autonomous ship whithin the next ten years. When asked about a common deployment of autonomous ships in merchant shipping the time horizon is somewhat longer with an average indication being 20 years from now. The share of participants that do not expect autonomous ships to become a reality – as a niche application or a regular part of the industry – is quite low overall (see Figure).
Martime legislation is seen as a major barrier for the introduction of autonomous ships. However, the respondents are quite optimistic in this context. 67% believe that legislation will be adapted successfully in future to take into consideration the specific circumstances that autonomous ships bring along. Current legislation requires that a “proper look-out” shall be maintained on the bridge at all times “by sight and hearing”. This might be interpreted to imply that a human must fulfil this function per se which would represent a major hurdle for the introduction of a further automation on the bridge. However, participants of the survey do not see the human look out as an imperative, with almost three-quarters agreeing that sensors, if proven to work reliably, may take over the function.
Besides regulatory compliance economic viability is a main hurdle for the realization of any innovative technology. Participants believe that autonomous ships will have a positive impact on the cost of maritime transport and the profitability of shipping companies. Both is seen to improve with 60% of respondents expecting transport costs to decrease with an introduction of autonomous ships and 43% anticipating a higher profitability for shipping companies.
Regarding ship safety advanced navigational support systems in combination with a positive impact of shore based monitoring of the ship are the main drivers. The stakeholders involved here share this view. Better detection capabilities due to advanced sensor systems on board are seen as a significant benefit by 95% of respondents. Also human error, a main factor contributing many maritime accidents (see e.g Baker/McCafferty (2005) or Rothblum (2000)), will be diminished by using advanced sensor systems and automation technology on the bridge according to the results of the survey.
As the maritime industry realizes higher degrees of automation overall – independent of autonomous ships – cyber-attacks pose relatively new threats compared to other industries where digitalization is already more widely spread. Nonetheless cyber security represents a major challenge for autonomous vessels which is also reflected in the results of the external stakeholder consultation: 63% see cyber security as a more serious threat for autonomous ships than for comparable land based systems.
The assumption that autonomous ships would have a positive impact on the work-life balance and increase the attractiveness of jobs in the maritime industry was confirmed by the stakeholders involved in the questionnaire. A large majority of three-quarter agreed that being disconnected from their social environment for long periods of time is a disadvantage of the work of mariners. Almost as strong was the support for the statement that shifting maritime jobs to a shore control centre would influence the work-life balance positively. The attractiveness of the working on board a ship compared to a shore control centre was rated favourable only by 24% of all respondents. Interestingly enough though, respondents that did or do work on board of a ship were less inclined to agree that shifting jobs from ship to shore would increase the attractiveness than those without on board experience.
Environmental sustainability is of increasing importance for the shipping industry. The polled maritime stakeholders share the view, that the development of autonomous ships is an innovation which can contribute towards the industries commitment to reduce its environmental footprint in future. 41% associate a higher environmental sustainablility with autonomous ships in comparison to conventional ships, although almost none sees a significant increase.
Waterborne TP’s Implementation Plan identified the autonomous ship as a main opportunity for a competitive and sustainable maritime industry in Europe. Actually a very large majority of more than 70% share the perception of autonomous ships being an important opportunity. On the other hand participants see associated benefits to outweigh risks less clearly. Most frequently mentioned opportunities were new innovative ship designs and a possible transfer of developed innovative technologies to conventional ships. With regards to challenges the participants ranked a prevention of accidents due to technology failures highest followed by an adaptation of maritime legislation for unmanned ships.
Although many questions could be answered within the project MUNIN, the idea of unmanned ships is still at very early stage of development and there are many open questions. Continued research on autonomous ships is necessary to provide more detailed answers and it certainly will. The results of this stakeholder questionnaire, carried out as part of the MUNIN project, will help to align future technological development in the context of autonomous ships better to socially desirable solutions and thus increase the chance that the innovation of an autonomous ship finds its way to the marked.