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From minimum to ultra-minimum crewing

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Captain Mert Daggecen, AFNI

From minimum to ultra-minimum crewing

Covid-19 could be a driver towards innovation in unmanned shipping

by Captain Mert Daggecen AFNI

The resilience of society has been tested by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the marine industry has unarguably faced more challenges than most. What effect will this have at a time when the possibility of uncrewed ships is being increasingly discussed?

Generally speaking, transitions in shipping have taken a long time, and have been in tune with the industrial development of their respective eras. One of the most significant examples of this was the replacement of sailing ships with steam-powered vessels. This was the child of the Industrial Revolution and transition took more than 50 years. The long transition period was related to the expensive building and operation costs of steam ships.

Today, very similar patterns are in place. The industry has been talking about unmanned ships for decades. While debates and studies have been going on for some time, the real move to unman ships started to gather pace in the 1970s, when automation halved the crew on board. Similarly, in the early 2000s, environmental regulations, especially the requirement for double-hull tankers, imposed a need to renew the global fleet. The new vessels were equipped with more reliable and precise equipment allowing a further 15–20% reduction in crewing. Reduction in crewing and increasing automation is, at this point, a fact of life, as is the operation of autonomous vessels such as the uncrewed surface vessel (USV) Maxlimer, which has recently completed a 22-day voyage to map an area of seafloor in the Atlantic. But what is the likelihood that we might in future see completely unmanned cargo vessels?

Conditions for transformation

In order to make an educated guess at the likelihood of completely unmanned ships in future, it is important to consider three conditions surrounding operational transformation.

The first is the ‘need to transport’. Even though it may sound obvious, this factor is the least mentioned when we talk about innovation in shipping. Trade drives both shipping and innovation.
If global trade does not grow, transformation is unlikely to happen – there will be neither the necessity nor the funds to realise it. History shows that innovations are generally introduced during the expansion period of business cycles, driving out obsolete technology. In a time of recession, expensive investment in innovation can push companies to insolvency.

The second condition for innovation is the cost of implementation. If the innovation is expensive to implement, or the cost of existing technology drops, transition will be slow, if it happens at all. In this case, transition will generally be put on hold until either the innovation is cost-effcient or regulations force owners to implement it. This has already occurred once in the introduction of unmanned shipping, when Japanese experiments with ultra-low-manned vessels in the early 1980s were abandoned once cheap crewing became widely available, meaning automation was no longer cost-effective.

The third condition is the extent to which the innovation adds value. No matter how exciting the new technology might be, if it does not provide value in the eye of key decision-makers, it is likely to be forgotten.

How far away are unmanned ships?

In view of these conditions, how likely are we to move from today’s to an environment where most or all ships are unmanned?
● The need for transport: we are in an era of recession. Most countries are suffering from a drop in GDP, a situation that has been escalated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
● The cost of implementation: unmanned ships require sophisticated technology, chiefly artifical intelligence, and maintenance-free machinery. Although experiments have met with a certain degree of technical success, the technology is still far from being economically viable. Industry limitations on the operating lifespan of a ship (especially in the tanker sector) are another barrier. Owners naturally want to maintain the value of their investment, and implementing expensive innovations in newbuildings negatively affects the financial ratio of investment on ships. However, requirements to reduce carbon emissions may drive an accelerated shipbuilding programme that could also incorporate the changes needed to make uncrewed shipping viable, if this is regarded as beneficial.
● Value added: unmanned ships have been the subject of panel discussions for a long time – The Nautical Institute, for example,
held a debate on the topic back in 2015. However, the possibility will probably be taken more seriously in the aftermath of Covid-19. The shipping industry is human-intensive, and we have seen all too vividly that the reliability of shipping services can be eroded by contagious viruses in a matter of months, or even weeks.
The first two of these conditions are apparently not in favour of innovational transition at this time. On the other hand, it is certainly important that the industry should seek ways to maintain reliable shipping services during a pandemic. As we are only too aware, complications in attending on board have caused nightmares for both seafarers and crewing departments in recent months.

Minimally manned ships would potentially offer an opportunity to increase reliability while reducing at least some of the difficulties of large-scale crew transfers. This would involve redesigning ship operations to cut the number of crew on board, and relocating some maintenance and operation crew permanently on shore.
Other major factors that may increase the pace towards ultraminimum manning are the availability – or otherwise – of quality crew (fewer youngsters show much enthusiasm for serving on oceangoing ships), challenges in training, and transportation costs.

Why is reduced crewing the best option?

A reduction in crewing can be achieved without demanding high technological investment or troublesome unproven technology -although changes to minimum crewing requirements would be needed. Vessels of standardised design, in particular, could run with crewing at half current levels, given some design considerations and the introduction of smart equipment. These vessels will, of course, be heavily dependent on shore-based maintenance at all levels. Feeder container ships are already a good example of this. There are vessels today trading with 10 to 12 crew.

How it would work

To understand better how ultra-minimum-crewed ships would operate, we need to separate the operational phases of the ship and look at how each can be undertaken with a much reduced crew.

Cargo operation: Given a standardised vessel design, cargo operations can be largely handled by a shore-based crew. The assistance of the onboard crew would be needed mostly for orchestration/management. Today, this practice is already partly in place with the assistance of port captains.

Mooring: A shore-based mooring squad could attend on board as a vessel approaches port in the same way that a pilot already does. This could provide additional benefits in terms of communication, as tug crew, pilot and mooring squad would probably speak the same language. Again, this practice is already in place at SBM (single buoy mooring) operations, which are handled by shore-based crew.

At sea: There are two major areas to consider: navigation and engine room operation and maintenance.
Today, we already see vessels navigated by a team of two or three officers making use of radar and ECDIS technology. The biggest challenge to safe navigation is fatigue. This occurs in particular on routes that have an intensive port call schedule, caused by the need to carry out cargo operations and administrative tasks that are imposed by multiple parties – eg charterer, port authority, the company.
Delegating cargo operations and supervision to the shore-based crew would go a long way to reducing this issue. Industry-based standardised reporting and communication policies can also help reduce fatigue by cutting the administrative burden. However, it is vitally important that contracts are short and that crew are provided with a high level of welfare and advanced communications.

Engine room operations and maintenance: This is the most challenging issue to overcome. Given present design and layout, engine room operations can be run by four to have crew members – so long as there is no malfunction. On the other hand, this expectation is not realistic. Engines are subject to internal friction, corrosion from oil residues and seawater cooling systems, all of them destined to result in failures. These failures need considerable qualified manpower to manage and mitigate. To overcome this obstacle, engine and equipment design should be more modular, allowing for easy replacement of spare parts, which again calls for design innovation.
Improvements in reducing friction (eg advanced lubrication), the elimination of seawater in the system and the presence of versatile skilled engineers are a must.

In summary, the reliability and sustainability of shipping services are at stake. The prevailing circumstances enforce innovation. The industry should consider not only today’s Covid-19 pandemic but also potential future pandemics.

The swift transition to fewer crew is an achievable option that can benefit most stakeholders. Regulatory bodies, technical managers and commercial parties need to come to a consensus on the fundamentals needed to use existing technology smartly, to simplify reporting and minimise documentation.

The shipping industry has always been conservative, but it has also always been successful in finding pragmatic and efficient ways to ensure the safety and viability of the business. This is unlikely to change. Efficient application of technologies and redesign of the business structure mean that ultimately, ultra-minimum crewing will pave the way for the wholly uncrewed vessel.


“This article first appeared in Seaways, the magazine of The Nautical Institute”

The Class of 2023 begins work in September 2021. Further information is available from programme director Irene Rosberg at ir.mba@cbs.dk


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