Monday, September 7, 2015

Drone ships move closer to reality as Inmarsat gets on board

Crew of landlubbers: Autonomous ships will be controlled from the shore
when they are not navigating themselves

From TheTelegraph by Alan Tovey

Satellite communications group Inmarsat signs up to research project investigating how to build drone ships which can sail without a crew 

Shipping could be revolutionized by automatic cargo ships navigating the world’s oceans, only checking in with shore-based operators in emergencies.
Removing humans from long voyages would cut the cost of operating ships – crew can represent a third of a ship's running costs – and allow them to carry more cargo in the space normally taken up by people.
Inmarsat will provide expertise in data transfer and communications to the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) initiative, with drone ships’ ability to stay in contact with land bases while out on the oceans being seen as key to their viability.

Global Xpress: Changing the future for us all
Hear from Inmarsat’s CEO and technology experts as we begin our transformational connectivity journey that is Global Xpress.
See how we are meeting people’s expectations to be connected wherever they go through our next-generation satellite broadband service, to bring faster speeds and higher capacity on land, at sea and in the air.

Last month Inmarsat launched its third Global Xpress satellite providing high-speed broadband connections from space, and when this satellite - located 22,000 miles above the Pacific - comes into service at the end of the year it will complete the FTSE 100’s company’s worldwide network.
This will mean that there will be no “coverage blackspots” on any of the world’s seas where drone ships would lose contact with their human operators, meaning they have constant and virtually real-time connections.

 How autonomous ships will work

“The Global Xpress mobile broadband network is a turning point for the future of the maritime industry and lends itself to the AAWA initiative,” said Ronald Spithout, Inmarsat’s maritime president, adding that satellite broadband is “fundamental” to autonomous ships.
“Global Xpress is the last big piece in the puzzle to bring about drone ships, although many other aspects need to be fleshed out, such as the legal and who is liable if something goes wrong.”
While the AAWA programme, which is being led by fellow blue chip Rolls-Royce, is still in its early stages, Inmarsat expects the research to produce spin-off technology which should boost its revenues before the first experimental drone ship makes its maiden voyage – something expected to occur within 10 years.
Mr Spithout said: “Before we get fully autonomous ships, there should be increased demand for maritime satellite broadband traffic as companies develop applications such as remotely monitoring cargo.”

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s president of marine innovation said that while much of the technology required for drone ships is available today, it is integrating it and developing the systems to operate unmanned vessels that is the next step.
“This gives us the chance to redefine what a ship really is,” he said.
“How it looks, how it operates and how efficient it is.”

Autonomous ships are increasingly catching the imagination of shipping companies looking for economies.
While crews could still be needed for complex operations such as docking, when a ship is in the open ocean they have little to do other than navigate and monitor systems, tasks which can easily be automated.
Crews could be ferried on and off to handle docking, or airlifted to a ship which runs into trouble or needs repairs.
Removing humans would also reduce the price of shipbuilding, with no need for heating and water systems, which add complexity and cost.
With no need for these systems, the amount of power a ship needs would be reduced, making them more efficient – a vital factor as regulation forces ships to reduce pollution.

 Without the need for facilites to house a human crew, ships could look very different

A single captain at a central base could also control several ships at a time, further reducing costs.
The threat of piracy could also be reduced, with ships being designed so they are harder to board or computer control meaning they can be shut off remotely, hampering criminals.
Mr Spithout added: “Without a crew on board, who is there for pirates to hijack?”
He added that cyber security would also need to be improved to prevent ships systems being hacked.
The AAWA project is being financed by Tekes, Finland’s technical research funding agency.

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