How Technology Is Revolutionising Safety At Sea

When any mode of transport is controlled by man, no matter how great the systems, no matter how experienced the captain or pilot, there is always the matter of human error. The Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), is currently developing new technology to minimise that risk as much as possible.

The development of safe steering for the remote monitored and controlled autonomous ships could well be the future of shipping, but is it a safer future of shipping?

So What Exactly Does This Mean?

It sounds great, very technical, but what does this actually entail? To put it simply, this means that the ships of the future will be mainly controlled by artificial intelligence (AI). The navigation systems and ships autopilots will steer the ship automatically. However, having said that, this doesn’t mean that man will be taken totally out of the equation.

These new ‘autonomous’ vessels may well be unmanned, but they will be monitored and controlled on demand by professionals based on dry land. The biggest challenge here it to ensure that these new ship navigation systems can control ships in all the various situations in which they may find themselves.

This shouldn’t be a problem for the VTT, as they have a vast understanding of autonomous ship research, especially where safety and reliability are concerned. So, not only should this autopilot enable the ship to run a specified pre-programmed route, but it should also perform evasive manoeuvers should it be needed, so it is fit for purpose under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

The Apilot Autopilot

So what is the Apilot Autopilot and how exactly does it work? Well, currently the design by VTT has three modes: The Track Mode, the Heading Mode and the Slow Joystick Control.

The first of the modes is Track Mode. The Apilot is programmed to steer the ship on a previously agreed route. However, should the ship detect another vessel or obstacle in the course of its route, then it will automatically switch to the second of its modes – the Heading Mode.

Heading Mode is what enables the autopilot to avoid collisions with vessels or obstacles that are in the path of the designated route. It makes small changes in the heading of the ship to a clear pathway, and as soon as all is safe, it then returns back to its original Track Mode.

Finally, there’s Joystick Mode, which adjusts the control and propulsion equipment to cope with the low speed procedures, such as manoeuvring sideways into the dock.

Whatever mode it is in; the autopilot is there to ensure that the ship always remains within a set distance from the original designated route. Should this not be the case, and the distance is exceeded at any point then a warning system is set off and control must be taken of the ship remotely, by the on land professionals.

Will People Still Get the Final Say?

Because of so many different factors that must be taken into account, people can never be totally removed from the equation. There are many different human factors that need to be taken into account when designing this new remote monitoring and control of the autonomous vessels.

With new concepts for the bridges and remote shore control centres of these futuristic vessels, the main aim is to make sure all operations are safer, more efficient and have the best possible solutions available from the most up to date technology.

The Future

Does this mean safer shipping in the future? Taking out a lot of room for human error is always going to mean there’s a smaller chance of accidents occurring, although the fact that humans will still be involved cannot remove this problem completely. Technology within every mode of transport has improved the safety, and this should be no different on these new vessels of the future.

With testing currently taking place in Helsinki, and discussions being held at MSC, highlighting the amount of safety and legal issues that still need to be resolved before it becomes a reality, it won’t be happening in the immediate future. However, should all go to plan and we could see the unmanned ships becoming reality by 2030.

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