Lighthouse projects

Space driven Autonomous Shipping

The use of space-based technologies will contribute to the autonomy and digitalisation of the naval sector, which will take maritime traffic to the next level. 

© Rolls-Royce Plc.

The crossing from Faial to Madalena, through a narrow channel little over 8 kilometres wide in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, takes about 30 minutes on calm sea days. The absence of significant obstacles made this canal the ideal place to proceed with the first tests of autonomous vessels in Portugal. Combining artificial intelligence with satellite data allowed the unmanned ship to make the connection between the Islands of Horta and Pico, using the best routes, according to the current weather conditions, saving time, saving fuel and guaranteeing the most efficient connection. 

We still have a long way to go, but is highly likely that unmanned vessels will become an everyday reality much sooner than autonomous cars.

In 2019, a joint venture between Rolls-Royce (that has since joined Kongsberg) and Finferries, the state-owned ferry operator of Finland, demonstrated the first fully autonomous vessel, conducting a journey between Parainen and Nauvo, with less than two kilometres, under remote control.

A ship with no crew, where artificial intelligence, smart algorithms, and space-based data work to define optimised routes and minimise fuel consumption will result in extended gains to the maritime sector and international trade commerce. In essence, autonomous maritime transport means reduced costs, augmented reliability and efficiency. At the same time, the existence of a remote-control crew ashore forces traditional onboard seafarers to reinvent and assess their roles, while relieving humans from unsafe and repetitive tasks. 

Autonomous shipping: What is it ?

Vessels are operated without (to a certain degree) human intervention

Algorithms analyse the route and provide decision support to on board seafarers. Vessels include seafarers and automation is an aid.

Vessels with seafarers
on board are controlled remotely by operators
at another location.

Vessels operated remotely by operators on another location. There are no seafarers on board.

Fully autonomous vessels operated by on-board computers that make decisions without human intervention.

© ESA

Working with more security

Another dimension of autonomous shipping is the one linked to human error: Using Space technology expertise to analyse and implement Space-enabled services for autonomous and remote-controlled shipping, can reduce the opportunity for human error, allowing crews to concentrate on other, more valuable, tasks. In fact, with between 75% and 96% of maritime-related accidents caused by human error, according to a study by Allianz, unmanned vessels will be more reliable as they will minimise the chance of human error.

But what can be the role of Space-based technologies in autonomous shipping? In fact, they will be crucial, as unmanned vessels need communication systems, navigation services and Earth Observation data and derived information, to guide their navigation. Examples? Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) will be vital to assure the constant link between the vessel and the control centre, so that the ship position, as well as its performance, is always known. At the same time, by knowing the exact location of each vessel, the control centre can check if all the decisions made by the vessels systems are according to the rules

ESA’s initiative Space for 5G (S45G), which supports technological and supply chain evolutions that are required to weave together terrestrial and Space technology services, will be fundamental to integrate Space technology and terrestrial-based 5G services, also in maritime transportation and the naval sector. The plan includes studying the applications of various Space assets to autonomous shipping, such as satellite-based positioning, improving situational awareness using Earth Observation data, and Satcom services for improved onboard connectivity. This unified Space-and-ground service is what will allow the operation of unmanned commercial shipping, as well as drive innovation in future commercial marine ships, cargo logistics, and smart ports.

The first impact of autonomous vessels will be on the decrease in vessel manufacturing investment, as the absence of crews will eliminate the need for accommodation and facilities for people. Identically, operational expenditure (OPEX) will drop, as autonomous vessels will reduce the need for manpower, and the route optimization made possible by Space-data and artificial intelligence will reduce fuel consumption and journey elapsed time. Furthermore, by introducing automation, we are diminishing human intervention, thus decreasing the risk of error and the risk to the health of crew members.  

At the same time, Big Data, Space-based data, and IoT will guarantee route optimization with regards to time, reducing fuel consumption through safer routes, as AI connects information concerning weather conditions and traffic movements.