Ghost ships on the Oceans – Who says it doesn’t work? Part 2

New functions for the autonomous ship

The KISS principle will also be applied to the ship itself and it is also important to look at how existing vessels can be modified to support unmanned operation. At the hardware level, technical modifications will be necessary, for example to the fuel-processing system, while an electric-powered water-jet for back-up propulsion and steering may have to be retrofitted.
New sensors to replace the look-out are also an important part of the unmanned ship. A combination of high resolution radar, low-Iight and infrared cameras form the 'advanced sensor system'. Most of the technology involved is already available and its adoption would be more a question of cost than of general availability. The sensor-system will be integrated with more conventional equipment such as the AIS system and ARPA radar. Computer-based data fusion, using Information from the various sensors, will further increase the capability of the sensor system. All these systems are already in use on board the merchant ships. The MUNUN project develops this daily practices only further- it combines the existing with new sensors, systems and programs. New ship developments are not required - only another technic will be used to steer to vessel.
Shore supervision and control
But it will not be a pure robot vessel. A consequence of the KISS principle is the introduction of the shore control center (SCC), which will cooperate with the ship’s own system to ensure effective and safe operation. The vessel systems will relieve the SCC operators of tedious monitoring and control tasks for most of the voyage. In the event of something unexpected that is beyond the capacities of the onboard systems, the SCC can rapidly provide human guidance. On the other hand, minimizing SCC interaction with the vessel will be important as a means of reducing communication costs.

Automating the look-out also raises the issue of how to handle direct interactions with other vessels, VTS and other shore facilities. Such facilities must be in place that will enable AIS, VHF and other communication to be routed through to the SCC operator. Sensors detect when engine components are required to be exchanged because of upcoming wear – this has long been practice in the aircraft industry.
Project manager Christoph Burmeister at the Fraunhofer CML in Hamburg: “The primary function of the land based control is the continuously monitoring of the autonomous system. Of course, they can in case of doubts per remote control intervene, but our target is to minimize this as much as possible. Our target is an unmanned vessel hence it will be monitored continuously on a high level”.
Also at docking and undocking human beings shall overtake the control of the ship. When the ship leaves a port a minimal crew navigates the ship to the open sea and will be picked up by pilot boats or helicopter. From there on the vessel runs without “human crew” until it comes close to its destination where an additional crew takes over and brings the ship safe into port.
Bulk carrier will be the first ships which are in focus of the MUNIN-partners. But already today consider the scientists how they can implement other ship types into this program.
But much work still needs to be done before this objective can be achieved. In autumn 2015 the MUNIN project shall be finished. Not only technical aspects of the project still must be clarified. Beside engineers and computer scientists also lawyers are involved. For example there exist the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), which describes a statutory duty to feature a look-out. Can this be assumed by sensors, cameras and land based control stations? These are the issues that occupy the project partner as well, says Burmeister: “Some of the existing international regulations probably must be adapted”.
At the end a real autonomous vessel will be send off for the first time.

MUNIN project coordinator Chrsitoph Burmeister, Fraunhofer CML Hamburg, in front of the simulation equipment

Image / graph: PPM News Service, Fraunhoher CML

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