As the shipping industry gets ready for the launch of the world’s first fully automated ship, the ‘Hrönn’, later this year, the maritime industry is buzzing with talk of crewless vessels and the subsequent cost savings that owners can look forward to.

However, not everyone in the shipping industry is convinced of the merits of these remote-controlled vessels. Roar Adland (Ph.D., MICS), Shipping chair professor at Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), maps out the potential downside of the ‘drone’ ship:

Increased safety?

Let’s agree that human error is a significant part of 70% to 80% of all accidents. However, how many incidents and accidents were avoided because of human presence? Anyone who has been at sea can attest that it’s all about problem solving and preventive action.

Reduced operational cost?

Crews are cheap. Getting 15 persons to continuously maintain and use human ingenuity to look after your multi-million dollar asset for $2000/day is a bargain. Computer algorithms cannot fix cargo lashings or a fuel valve leak, and flying out an emergency repair crew every time something happens is going to cut into your apparent OPEX savings. Importantly, fleet-wide cost savings will always result in lower freight rates over time and so, in the end, your profits are no better off. In the meantime, you will be competing with a fleet of older manned ships with much lower CAPEX. Just ask any owner of expensive new ECO ships how that is working out.

Reduced construction costs?

Sure, removing the superstructure saves a bit of weight and costs. However, how much redundancy is needed in the rest of the ship to make an unmanned ship as reliable as a manned one (e.g. dual engines)? The quality of materials (steel, paints, etc.) will also have to be higher to defer maintenance until drydocking (which will itself take longer). Thus, it is not obvious at all that the net effect is positive.

Increased environmental sustainability?

With classic hull shapes, the loss of superstructure merely results in somewhat lower air resistance, assuming that increased cargo intake makes up for any savings in light weight. Ironically, lower fuel consumption for a given speed should lead to higher optimal sailing speeds, all else equal. Thus, the fact that a ship is unmanned, by itself, does not bring any environmental benefits (keeping in mind that data servers onboard and ashore will be major energy consumers). More efficient trading patterns and renewable energy sources for propulsion will have a major impact, but these developments are not conditional on autonomous ships. In the long run, the main environmental benefit may be that unmanned ships could utilise more extreme but very energy efficient solutions such as fully submerged hulls.

Increased revenue

While often lost in a cost-minimising engineering world, higher cargo intake for a given hull volume may just be the main thing going for unmanned ships – much more so than the relatively minor savings in crew costs and questionable savings in construction costs. I say may, as one could see the weight and volume savings eaten up by battery packs and LNG tanks – with alternative fuels still packing less energy density than conventional heavy fuel.

All told, unmanned vessels would likely have a role to play in coastal and short-sea shipping, where port-time and crew costs take up a relatively large share, and where accommodation takes up a relatively larger part of the vessel.

Unfortunately, with land-based transportation becoming unmanned and fossil-free much earlier and easier than shipping, the hopes for a substantial shift to sea transportation may be misplaced.

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