COLUMN | False economy: remote-controlled autonomous ships? [Offshore Accounts]

Yara Birkeland (Photo: Yara)
Yara Birkeland (Photo: Yara)

The news that the bulk carrier Wakashio grounded off Mauritius and broke in two in August last year because the crew were navigating dangerously close to the shore in order to – wait for it – be able to pick up a mobile phone signal, is probably the biggest argument in favour of autonomous ships.

One of the rules of PR is to put out bad news when nobody is looking, such as Borr Drilling's refinancing announcement on Christmas Eve (here). I read Baird every day, but even I missed the news here from the Wakashio's owners Mitsui OSK Lines, which we published on December 22, reporting that:

"On the day of grounding, the crew tried to further reduce the distance from the coast from five nautical miles to two nautical miles so that the ship could enter an area within the communication range of mobile phones. The crew then used a nautical chart without sufficient scale to confirm the accurate distance from the coast and water depth.

"In addition, a crewmember neglected appropriate watch-keeping (visually and by radar), even though the ship was trying to sail two nautical miles off the coast. As a result, it ran aground in water 10 metres deep 0.9 nautical miles off the coast."

My excuse: battery battle in the bayous

In my defence for overlooking this story of human folly on the doomed bulk carrier, there was a distracting catfight in the ongoing Battle of the Batteries (here) in offshore, with Harvey Gulf's CEO Shane Guidry and Dino Chouest of Edison Chouest engaged in a festive war of words over who had the right to call themselves the pioneers in hybrid OSVs in the US Gulf of Mexico, a dispute wonderfully captured in the Louisiana press here.

To err is human; to blame someone else is politics

We hear it over and over again. People and human errors cause accidents; therefore, autonomous ships will be safer because they don't have people on board.

However, in the case of Wakashio the accident might perhaps have been avoided if the crew had simply been provided with decent Wi-Fi for WhatsApp, or more satellite calling time to speak to their families, at the cost of what, a thousand dollars a month? Then they might never have been tempted to navigate dangerously into land-based mobile signal range. Especially now that Pornhub has clamped down on much of its content (I hear from a friend), and that mobile roaming charges can sometimes be higher than some shipboard satcom charges.

Perhaps autonomous ships are not a "slam dunk"?

Here's an opening thought for 2021. What if flags of convenience and the grinding cost cutting that the offshore sector and the shipping industry more generally have experienced in the last forty years have undermined the business case for remotely controlled autonomous vessels? What if the additional capital expense of all the systems on board and the costs of employing shore-based mariners to supervise remotely controlled vessels exceeds the costs of operating vessels on international voyages with actual human crew and standard systems?

Autonomous, unmanned vessels are supposed to deliver lower costs and higher safety standards by removing human error. But will they in the real world?

Uber quits self-driving car market

That would be a bold call by the author… so, as ever, some quick back pedalling is in order. Step one to avoid accusations of being a Luddite – add a question mark to the title. Step two, make sure that any statements are tentative and suitably hedged. "It is difficult to predict, especially the future," to quote the Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

Indeed, Uber, the taxi app company, was spending US$20 million a month since 2016 to try to build its own fleet of driverless cars. That year, Uber's CEO had set a goal of having 100,000 self-driving cars on the road by 2020 and predicted "robo-taxis" would be the future of the company.

Uber gave up at the end of 2020 and folded its autonomous land vehicle unit into a competitor, Aurora. It failed, and was involved in a fatal accident with a cyclist in the process, but probably spent far more on that one failed project than the entire marine industry has spent on developing unmanned ships. That should tell us something.

What do we mean by "autonomous"?

First let's define terms, always words to fill the heart with dread when some tedious speaker begins to waffle on, but necessary in this case to understand what we are discussing. Please don't groan and shuffle your feet. The IMO has scoped autonomous shipping into four degrees as follows:

Degree one: Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.

Degree two: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.

Degree three: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.

Degree four: Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

Lessons from DP, the first degree – study the failures

Degree one is already with us, and is so uncontroversial as to be taken for granted. In offshore, dynamic positioning (DP) is now the norm, and is widely accepted as being safer than vessels manually holding position close to platforms and rigs, or trying to conduct pipeline surveys in joystick mode. Computers take inputs from sensors and adjust main engines and thrusters to automatically to keep the ship on station.

There's an entire Norwegian Masters' thesis by Kristian Stenvågnes Hauffon on the causes of failures to DP systems here – interestingly, his study of 222 incidents found that 38 per cent were caused by propulsion failures alone, and another 32 per cent by reference signal failure (typically, loss of satellite signals). Only one in twenty of the DP accidents was caused by human error alone, which might tell us that in offshore perhaps the people are not the problem?

Indeed, having trained and qualified officers on the bridge and in the engine-room probably prevented many of these DP incidents being more serious, because the crew could intervene quickly (and weren't thousands of miles away popping out for a cheeky coffee in the control centre kitchen).

Duplication in the second degree – cost purgatory

The economics of degree two look horrible. Who wants a ship sailing around with crew on board, supported by a remote operations centre (ROC) manned by a duplicate shore-based staff of similarly qualified mariners? This doubles up costs and will be more expensive than either a fully crewed ship or a remotely controlled vessel. Degree two is the worst of all worlds, but, unfortunately, this is where many supposedly autonomous vessel operators will find themselves until their systems and equipment are completely proven and completely trusted, which may (actually, I mean "will" here) take years, and years.

At degree two you have to build ships with accommodation, air conditioning, plumbing, galleys and all the usual bells and whistles, plus you need at least two expensive ROCs ashore for redundancy if you move to remote control operations fully at some point, and you have to pay for significantly more satellite bandwidth capacity for the remote monitoring (Some operators might skip that bit, based on past form, but hopefully not MOL.).

You also pay for a more expensive, complicated and duplicate systems on board, because you have to assume that at some point all the people will be removed when your technology is finally proven. But until it is greenlit for degree three operations with ashore control alone, you have a more expensive vessel sailing around with expensive crew, and a more expensive shore establishment monitoring it as well. This intermediate stage is a killer.

Odfjell says save the planet, not sack the crew

This is possibly why Laurence Odfjell, chairman of his family Odfjell group declared in October last year that autonomous ships were a low priority for the shipping industry. He felt that working on zero emissions ships and combating climate change was more important than achieving zero-crew ships. Argus reported that Odfjell has set itself a zero emissions target for 2050 (here). He wants technology directed at decarbonisation to, "save the planet," rather than removing crew from vessels.

Love in the third degree

As we noted in our "Subsea Survey Wars" piece in April here, Ocean Infinity and survey industry leader Fugro have embarked on a robotic arms race to digitalise and automate offshore survey. In February 2020 Ocean Infinity announced its order of what turned out to be nine Armada vessels of 21 metres and 36 metres long. These are being built in Norway with Volvo Penta engines and will be used for hydrographic research, launching and recovery of AUVs and ROVs independently, and collecting survey data. Ocean Infinity claims that the units will be in service next year, after some delays, whilst Fugro already has an autonomous vessel performing survey work in Australia already (as we reported here).

<em>Photo: Ocean Infinity</em>
Photo: Ocean Infinity

With all due respect, this low value hydrography and bathymetric work is perfectly suited to autonomous shipping (Independently launching and managing ROVs and AUVs may be more of a challenge, however.). Small unmanned craft poddle around close to the shore collecting data meticulously. The risk of accidents is limited, the value of the vessel is only a few million dollars, and the unit can be pre-programmed to follow the survey grid, with data beamed straight back to the ROC for processing, so no complex manoeuvring is required.

Shell has backed the idea with support for the Armada fleet to wander around the open ocean trying to detect the distinct chemical trace of oil seeps, which indicate the presence of hydrocarbons. A perfect fit.

Yara Birkeland

The first milestone in autonomous shipping was actually met at the end of November 2020, when Vard handed over Yara Birkeland, a 120TEU container vessel, 80 metres long with 3,200 DWT. Yara Birkeland is designed to take trucks off the road in Norway by serving short shipping routes for Yara, the chemical and fertiliser company, its owner. The press release is here.

The vessel will be undergoing testing in Horten for most of 2021 for further preparations for autonomous operation with Kongsberg providing the remote control technology. One presumes that the vessel will provide a shuttle service along pre-set routes over short distances along the Norwegian coast, but Yara has been quiet on which ports the vessel will serve, its battery life, scope of work, and the contingencies in place to manage the ship in the event of a problem.

At the time of the newbuilding contract award, Vard Holdings announced that the deal with Yara to build the world's first autonomous and electric container vessel was worth NOK250 million (US$29.7 million).

Bigger is better?

Big money is being funnelled into achieving degrees two and three, but will the financial returns be there for investors? Ocean Infinity's chief executive thinks so.

"The impact and the scale of this robotic fleet will spark the biggest transformation the maritime industry has seen since sail gave way to steam," said Ocean Infinity chief executive Oliver Plunkett, confirming the order of eight of the 78 metres long, DP2 vessels with Vard late last year (here). At the same time, though, he admitted that the vessels would "initially" be crewed, exposing the company to the painful cost purgatory of degree two.

Show me the (source of the) money

What's disappointing is that none of the contract values for the Ocean Infinity fleet have been announced, and it is not clear where the funding will come from. The transparency of funding by private subsea companies engaged in massive newbuilding sprees is a topic to which we hope to return later in the year, triumphantly, with ultra-deep studies.

I would guess that the new Vard OSV newbuildings 78 metres long with DP2 and hybrid propulsion, fuel cell ready, would be in the order of US$25 million apiece, once all systems are included, which puts the total investment by Ocean Infinity at US$200 million. This is based on the known value of Yara Birkeland, which has similar specifications, but it is possible there might be some Vard or Kongsberg vendor financing or equity available, or that the Vietnamese-built ships are much cheaper than the Romanian-Norwegian hull was, or the specification much lower.

<em>Photo: Vard</em>
Photo: Vard

I am guessing, but without any details in the public domain, we can neither know how much is being spent, the exact specifications being built, or where the funds are coming from. Perhaps, Ocean Infinity will be the marine tech IPO sensation of 2021? That would provide much more clarity.

Big pivot as subsea ships are redelivered

What is clear is that 2020 saw a major pivot by Ocean Infinity when the company announced here that it had redelivered from charter two of its three large subsea vessels that were the motherships to its AUV and ROV fleets: Pacific Constructor, the ship that shot to fame through the search for the lost and still unfound Malaysian airliner MH370 in the Indian Ocean whilst deploying a swarm of AUVs, and Normand Frontier, which wasn't really famous at all.

Ocean Infinity says it will keep on charter the 103 metres long, UT 737 CD design Island Pride, equipped with six AUVs and two ROVs, and a 125-tonne knuckle-boom crane (specifications here) to, "continue providing services to its global customer base." Pacific Constructor is now being touted around by brokers for sale at levels not much dissimilar to one of the putative Vard newbuilds, if my price guess is correct.

That clears the way for the nine Armada small unmanned vessels due this year, and the eight Vard vessels due for delivery in 2022 and 2023. But it also implies that the previous business model was not generating much free cash flow. Otherwise why release two of the three ships now and take twelve AUVs out of service well ahead of the delivery of the Armada fleet?

Flags of convenience have done the heavy lifting already

But will the savings be there, even at degree three, where unmanned vessels are supported by satellites ROCs? Here proponents of autonomous shipping run up against the uncomfortable truth that shipping has already offshored all its jobs to the lowest regulation, lowest tax jurisdictions. To Liberia, Panama, St Vincent (and The Grenadines), the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the usual and successful flags of convenience. This forced respectable registers like Singapore, the UK and Norway to look at ways of making their registers as attractive as possible, also by squeezing out taxes and costs for owners.

Reshoring jobs adds cost

By opening ROCs, owners and operators are re-shoring the jobs, at higher cost, unless they can somehow convince the inland revenue and tax authorities that their offices are actually ships, a ploy that I doubt will work, although tech grants from hungry maritime clusters like Singapore and post-Brexit Britain may be available.

There will also be exception to the "higher cost" line in niche trades, especially where the existing crew are effectively on-shored and have to pay full domestic wages and taxes anyway, like the Norwegian coastal trade, which Yara hopes to exploit, or the Aussie survey market, which Fugro is playing – which explains why we see the trials of autonomous vessels there.

Ocean Infinity and Fugro cite Aberdeen, Fareham, and the Netherlands as locations where they will or already do operate their ROCs for autonomous vessels. Employing staff there onshore in developed countries means them paying income taxes, whereas usually seafarers enjoy an exemption in many jurisdictions when working internationally.

It also means their ROCs' employers must pay social benefits like national insurance in the UK, contributing towards their personal pensions, and providing perks like health cover, especially in the US. Many shipping companies do not provide these now.

Ocean Infinity says it is setting up an ROC in Austin. Texas is one of the most employer-friendly US states, but even so, the company will have to provide American health cover to its shore staff, and they will have to pay federal income taxes, even if Texas has no state income taxes. Suddenly, P&I accident insurance and a US$15 a day food on a ship budget starts to look cheap. And Texas' "at will" employment law means that staff can be fired or can leave with no notice, which might make rostering and coverage challenging.

More mariners ashore than aboard?

Then there are the numbers of staff required. Offshore mariners routinely work hours that are illegal in most onshore jurisdictions, but they typically commute up or down two flights of stairs to the bridge, the deck, or the engine room. The ILO Maritime Labour Convention rules are set out here. They state that a number of ship working hours should be:

  • Eight hours a day, under normal circumstances, with one day as a rest day
  • A maximum of 14 hours in any 24-hour period
  • A maximum of 72 hours in any seven-day period
  • Provided with a minimum of 10 hours of rest in any 24 hours period

This means that to cover a vessel operated remotely by an ROC, more mariners will be required, unless true human-free fourth degree autonomy is achieved, which is unlikely going to be in my lifetime – or yours.

Try finding someone, even in Texas or Dubai, willing to work six days a week and up to 72 hours a week, plus commuting time, for ten or eleven months of the year. Seafaring is intense, but seafarers have the benefit of some of the longest holidays in the world, often with half their time off at home. Even with the wretched salaries, the possibilities of tax-free earning, the opportunity for worldwide travel, and long, long holidays make seafaring attractive.

Providing the same salary and hours ashore to a master mariner working in an industrial unit with fluorescent strip lighting, staring at a screen all day, won't cut it compared to actually being on a ship.

Cautious realism

So, the jury's out. Big bucks are being spent. What would really stimulate the development of autonomous ships in offshore would be another bull market of high day rates for vessels and crew, seafarer shortages, and charterers desperate to secure tonnage. Building a business in an industry ravaged by recession amid a flood of very cheap, very modern second-hand tonnage will be hard.

But hats off to those who try, especially Yara and the survey companies. Will they be able to cross from the purgatory of the second degree of autonomy, or will regulatory issues, performance problems and technical uptime difficulties keep them in a structure of duplicate costs and mariners both ashore and aboard? Prediction is hard.

Now, back to trying to find mobile phone coverage…

Background reading

The IMO's guide to Autonomous Shipping is here.

Unions fret that autonomous shipping will result in the demise of the seafaring profession here.

Usually, when a Forbes writer is excited about shipping, there's something wrong, so Bernard Marr's take on autonomy is worth considering here. No, I am not sure if he is related to Johnny Marr of 1980s disco group Depeche Mode.

Yara press kit for its autonomous vessel is here.

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