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Unmanned Surface Vessels now a reality

Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) are now a reality for the Maritime industry, with vessels no longer requiring a crew onboard to run.

Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) are now a reality for the Maritime industry, with vessels no longer requiring a crew onboard to run.

The Business Times spoke to an expert in the industry, Luis Benito, Global Strategic Marketing Manager of Lloyd's Register, a maritime classification society and a technical and business services organisation.

Lloyd's Register is the leading international provider of classification, compliance and consultancy services to the marine industry, known best for the classification and certification of ships.

Mr Benito, who heads Business Development & Innovation of the Marine & Offshore business division, shared some insights on the future of Maritime with this new disruptive innovation.

Question: Most maritime sub-sectors have not been spared the impact of a severe industry downturn. Against these headwinds, what are the key drivers behind the development of autonomous applications for port or shipping purposes (eg automated guided vehicles and unmanned surface vessels)?

For shipping, it is essentially about increasing the safety of people on board by using technology to de-risk operations and about also creating operational efficiencies on the way. For ports, it is about increasing the safety of navigation within the Port and adjacent passage and anchorage areas, and increasing operational efficiency with regards to managing quay and anchorage usage.

However, as we move towards implementing digital technologies in Maritime, I am sure we will keep uncovering new areas of value for shipping and ports that we have not even realised. One such area already emerging will be around the better integration between shipping and ports.

Question: How realistic is it for shipowners to modify vessels to run autonomously, or will this spell a new wave of newbuilding investments?

The world's first cyber-enabled ship is now on the water, classified safe and secure to operate at a given level of autonomy for three systems chosen by their owners, as the result of a retrofitting of the design of the ship prior to the ship being delivered by the shipbuilder as new. So, it is already a reality.

The ship, delivered in Korea, is classed with Lloyd's Register and with the Lloyd's Register new Cyber-enabled Ship notation.

As we speak, Lloyd's Register is working on a newbuilding project in China where a new ship is being designed as cyber-enabled from inception. This ship is expected to be delivered towards the end of 2017, and we are working with the client in finalising the level of autonomy the ship will end up having.

Therefore, both markets, retrofitting and new building markets, are open. I would not necessarily envisage a new wave of newbuilding orders just because cyber-enabled ships are being born; what I envisage is that many newbuilding orders would consider adding a cyber element into the contract to achieve a certain level of connectivity for the ship and/or autonomy in her operations, or to simply create ships that are more efficient and safe to operate through digitalisation.

Question: How far can current manpower be re-skilled/up-skilled to operate USVs or AGVs? What could be the impact on job numbers or shift in demographic profile of crew/port workers?

Basically, implementing digital technologies on ships is more about turning the operation of a ship up a few notches as compared to how modern ships are operated today, when the implementation is taken in stages (as was the case with the first cyber-enabled ships classed safe mentioned above).

When a ship is to become fully remote-controlled, or when, for example, its navigation is going to become autonomous at certain legs within certain trades, the jump is larger, and I am sure this would require that the operator ensures that the crew is made aware and competent of the new operating mode.

When classing a cyber-enabled ship, we look at six risk areas, and one of them is what we call the "Human-system Considerations". It recognises that we need to identify potential hazards related to the fact that systems would be designed to perform tasks that a human may have performed in the past.

As for the impact on jobs, we have not conducted any study about job numbers, but it is evident that digital technologies could create shore-based jobs more directly related to the safety and efficient operation of ships, as well as new competencies for existing jobs onboard ships in the future.

I believe the time will come when we will see a ship operated by an integrated work-force that could be located both onboard and ashore, and there could be integrated working between the shore workforce and the ship management company and Ports. A new landscape for sure, that will also generate attractive jobs for maritime ashore. I believe the fully autonomous ship will work safely when integrated into the maritime chain.

Question: How ready are ports to cope with traffic management of a mix of unmanned/manned vessels?

What I believe is that ports now have the chance to design a digital port or smart port, and how to operate it; and this is the time to start. Like with any other disruptive innovation, a good beginning could be a pilot trial, to then designate areas of Smart Operation of controlled conditions to put the future to true test.

It is possible that there is an immediate future with Smart Hubs that will work together connected when it makes economic sense for the parties involved to do so , and that these hubs exist in parallel with traditional hubs that would gradually digitalise. I think there is no way to stop this trend; it has already started.

Question: How ready is the maritime sector to cope with heightened cyber security concerns as the sector embraces increasing automation/digitisation?

I believe the maritime sector is quickly starting to think about the need to become more cyber secure, and this is due to an increase in the awareness of the main players, starting from the C-level, and the realisation that ships are already more connected than they thought and that any new modern ship will potentially become yet another connected asset to manage.

The risks inherent to connectivity are becoming real and many companies in maritime have already been hacked.

The maritime sector is getting ready or is going to get ready very soon, as regulation might emerge sooner than we expect, driven by the US Coast Guard and the IMO (International Maritime Organization). Our foundation level of cyber-security for cyber-enabled ships was launched over a year ago, along with a comprehensive Cyber Security Consulting Service tailored for the maritime industry last March. We are about to launch a second wave of cyber secure notations with additional tiers of services very cyber-security has already landed as a strong need in the maritime sector we serve.