Automated transport by water – an untapped potential?

Long ocean crossings where not much is encountered in the way of obstacles or other ships can be compared to motorway journeys in terms of complexity for autonomous systems

Long ocean crossings where not much is encountered in the way of obstacles or other ships can be compared to motorway journeys in terms of complexity for autonomous systems

Self-driving cars and drones have grabbed most of the headlines when it comes to autonomous transport, but a new Transport Systems Catapult project is about to make waves when it comes to automated journeys by sea, as TSC programme director Neil Fulton explains.

The UK has a long and rich heritage when it comes to maritime transport – as you might expect of an island nation. But as well as being a proud part of our history, trade and travel by sea remains a significant part of our modern-day economy, and we should still be able to “rule the waves” in the future, if we continue to innovate in the sector.

Automation will certainly be part of the mix when it comes to that maritime future, a fact that has already been recognised by the UK government. In February, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling set out his vision for a maritime technology revolution including the growing use of autonomous vehicles.

Having already played a leading role in the development of the UK’s thriving Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) capabilities on both land and in the air, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Transport Systems Catapult is now looking to apply our expertise to the field of marine transport.

Common elements

Clearly, when we are talking about transport by land, sea and air, there will be major differences in terms of the physical environment, but there are also many common elements when it comes to automated transport systems and the benefits that they can bring to whichever mode of transport is being discussed.

Last year, Maritime UK published a UK Industry Code of Practice for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), following hot on the heels of the similar code of practice for connected and autonomous road-based vehicles that was published by the Department for Transport in 2015 – and including many of the same considerations regarding levels of autonomy, vehicle types and areas of operation.

As with road and air accidents, the majority of safety incidents at sea are caused by human error, though those occurring at sea tend to be less often reported since, fortunately, their impact tends to be economic (in terms of damaged or delayed goods) rather than necessarily involving injury or loss of life.

The potential benefits of increased automation in the marine sector are also expected to mirror those already seen in aviation and those starting to be seen on roads, producing ships that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment – not least because of the possibility that more freight could be moved around the country using coastal shipping, rather than having to rely upon road-based heavy goods vehicles.

Levels of complexity

There are further parallels to land and air when it comes to which segments of a journey you focus on automating, and the related levels of complexity. Long ocean crossings where not much is encountered in the way of obstacles or other ships can be compared to motorway journeys, where traffic is segregated into one direction of flow and with generally uniform speeds (in ideal conditions) – although motorways often involve much more work in terms of dealing with a greater number of other vehicles.

Just as the world’s major car manufacturers and software developers have rushed to tackle motorway or highway cruising as a first step, major players in the maritime sector such as Rolls Royce, Siemens and Maersk have long been working on technology that allows ships to cruise major shipping lanes for long periods in automated mode (indeed, it is almost a hundred years since the first basic autopilot was trialled on a Standard Oil tanker) and it is likely that large ocean-going vessels will soon be capable of being left unmanned for the vast majority of their crossings.

There is still, however, much work to be done (and much economic opportunity) in the more complex start and end phases of sea crossings – similar again to the more complex scenarios that will be faced by self-driving cars once they are ready to pull off the motorway and head into the city centre.

A toe in the water

It is precisely in addressing these technically complex phases, when freight and passenger ships head out to sea or back in to port, that I believe the UK has the technical, regulatory and socio-economic prowess to play a leading role, and the Transport Systems Catapult is already bringing together leading experts, organisations and universities to create cutting-edge projects and world-leading consortia in this field – just as we have done previously with land-based autonomous vehicles.

The project that kick-started our work on self-driving land vehicles was the LUTZ Pathfinder pavement-based pods project in Milton Keynes, and we are now in the initial stages of what I think will be a similarly pioneering trial on water.

Further details will be announced soon, but we will be working together with a number of major UK organisations, from government, industry and academia, to develop a fully autonomous passenger ferry that will provide a new service linking sections of the southern English coast.

Harnessing existing technology

As with all of our projects at the TSC, technological challenges will of course form a part of the project, but we will also be looking to adapt several solutions that have already been successfully applied in other maritime applications – such as the defence industry’s use of unmanned vehicles to detect underwater mines, or the use of similar vehicles to lay down or move power and telecommunications cables, or to inspect offshore windfarms.

What will be new when it comes to this project is the harnessing of the technology to create unmanned vessels that can move people and freight. This means that as well as adapting technology, we (and our consortium partners) will also need to consider the regulatory changes required, the business cases that would support such a service and the scale of the expected positive impacts in terms of alleviating road congestion and reducing environmental harm.

According to the project time-plan, we should be ferrying members of the public across the water on a fully autonomous vehicle in the next two to three years. While that should provide a fun and interesting experience for the passengers involved, the project learnings will have the much more serious aim of providing us with an exportable model that the UK can look to sell to just about any country with a coastline.

In a final parallel to our self-driving pavement-based pods, the emphasis there was all about enabling “last mile” journeys – i.e. taking people from a train station or outlying car park and into the city centre (or back) to alleviate the pressure caused by everybody driving into the centre. Now, we’ll be applying similar technology to help alleviate pressure and improve efficiency at busy ports and harbours. In other words, we’re getting ready to tackle the last nautical mile.

The south coast autonomous ferry project is just one of many maritime research and development projects that the Transport Systems Catapult is currently working on or helping to create, and we are always keen to hear from organisations who are looking to more fully exploit capabilities that could be applied to the Intelligent Mobility sector. If you would like to get in contact with us, please fill out the form below.

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