Autonomous Vessels Sailing into Uncharted Waters

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The shipping industry is responding to a need to reduce its carbon footprint as it develops autonomous vessels, reports the Street.

The Suzaku, a 95-meter, 749 metric ton container ship, made a 490-mile roundtrip voyage between Tokyo Bay and Matsusaka port in the city of Tsu on Feb. 26.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the trip–except perhaps for the fact that the Suzaku had no crew.

Seismic Shifts

The Nippon Foundation, which deployed the vessel, said Suzaku operated under a fully autonomous navigation system including remote operation from the Fleet Operation Center in Chiba Prefecture.

The group said remote operation of ships from land can address such issues as crew shortages, aging crews and reducing accidents. The demonstration also shows have far ships have come since the days when sailors used the stars to find their way home.

The industry is facing seismic shifts as it increases technology while looking to reduce carbon emissions.

Reduced crew levels through increased use of better systems as well as autonomous systems has been taking place for a number of years and in recent years more ambitious developments have started to take place,” said Stephen Turnock, head of department at the University of Southampton. “Initially on small vessels but increasingly scaling up.”

‘More Electric’

Turnock cited Ocean Infinity, a marine robotics company, said in May that it had successfully launched its first 78-meter Amarda vessel in Vietnam. The company said it is the first of 23 optionally-crewed, low-emission robotic ships.

Roughly 80% of the volume of international trade in goods is carried by sea and the percentage is even higher for most developing countries, so the economic importance of shipping cannot be understated.

The shipping industry also accounts for about 3% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Andrew Alleyne, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, said that while the industry is making a great deal of progress in the area of electrification, very few long-distance cargo ships will be electric.

There isn’t the battery energy density to support this,” he said. “They will likely be ‘more electric.’ That is, there will be a power generation device, or devices, like a large generator that will distribute the power around the ship to thrusters, comms, refrigeration, etc. It will be a small floating microgrid.”

‘No Silver Bullet’

Last year, the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80% of the global shipping industry, submitted plans to the International Maritime Organization that detailed measures the group said governments must take to help the industry achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

There’s not one silver bullet here,” said Guy Platten, the chamber’s secretary general. “It’s going to be a multifaceted approach, but there’s no doubt that electric-powered ships have got their place.”

Platten said there are electric-powered ships in service now, but they tend to be short-haul vessels like ferries. He noted that there are other zero-carbon fuel sources, such as ammonia, hydrogen, and methanol.

We’re confident that we can get to a net zero position by 2050 but it needs a number of things to happen to make that work,” he said, including research and development, availability of fuels and “some sort of carrot and stick” incentive to bridge the gap between the zero-carbon fuels which are currently more expensive to produce than fossil fuels.

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Source: The Street 

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