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  • Melvin Mathews

Journey towards maritime autonomy

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

In 2015 a company operating in a niche area with a unique use-case approached us with a specific request. They wanted to know if we could provide the technology to operate semi or partially remote operated vessels. When asked if they meant manual operation with the capability of remote operation, we were surprised by their response. Their ambition was fully unmanned vessels, remotely operated with the capability of autonomous operation. Installation was completed, and the vessel was in operation a year later in 2016.

As the project mentioned above was covered by a strict NDA, in 2017 this technical capability was demonstrated to the world by remotely operating a vessel in Scotland from the operations center in the USA more than 5000 miles away. The remote operation established that vessels could be operated with less than 1 second response time from anywhere on the planet. Publicly this was a significant milestone, it was the first time in maritime history that a commercial vessel had been remotely operated successfully from another continent.

The stone age did not end because we humans ran out of stone 10,000 years ago. Similarly, if we consider the current trend towards renewable energy and future maritime fuels we must take into consideration the statement by Ahmed Zaki Yamani who was the Minister of Oil for Saudi Arabia for more than twenty years – “The oil age will end way before the world runs out of oil.” Every age has ended because of innovation and emerging technology which allowed us to do things differently.

The discussion of remotely operated vessels or autonomous vessels is incomplete if we only consider technology that makes these operating modes possible. Because vessels purpose built for that early adopter customer in 2015, continue to be in service to this day and they are being operated both remotely and autonomously based on their unique operating requirements. As the world slowly moves away from fossil fuels, the future of remote operations and autonomous technology however must be considered in tandem with the type of propulsion energy they will use and also depends on what specific objectives they will serve.

Early adopters are using the technology outside the current footprint of traditional shipping. However as it gradually enters mainstream commercial shipping, will unmanned & autonomous technology perhaps disrupt the maritime landscape, offering new use-cases, innovative business models, alternate trade routes, etc. Is the ambition always as it appears, to achieve better efficiency, reduce waste, enhance safety, increase supply-chain productivity, reduce risk and of course better predictability & profitability.

Let me know your thoughts.

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