In spite of the christening of its first unmanned surface vessel in Portland, Oregon in April 2016, the US Navy’s plans to add further self-driving ships to its fleet remains shrouded in secrecy.

Since then, there has been little or no news on the Sea Hunter, the vessel in question, which appears to have drifted from public consciousness into an altogether more classified domain.

If reports are to be believed, however, the Navy has its sights on building a ten-strong fleet of unmanned surface vessels over the next five years, and has put in a request to Washington for a fiscal injection of $2.7 billion to get construction rolling.

Autonomous vessels – or drone ships – has been a topic doing the rounds in wider maritime circles for a little while now. Some believe it is only a matter of time before we see driverless transport on the sea, just as self-driving cars are expected to soon become a reality on our roads.

Thus, the announcement during Singapore Maritime Week in April of the signing of a memorandum of understanding to develop the industry’s first ocean-going autonomous system was met with keen interest.

Pushing boundaries: The maritime industry’s first ocean-going autonomous system

The ink on the respective MoU is shared between Lloyd’s Register (LR), Singaporean group ST Engineering Electronics Ltd (STEE) and Mitsui, Japan’s second largest trading house. The agreement forms part of wider programme, funded by Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore, to create the world’s largest ocean-going autonomous vessel.

According to LR – a company whose origins date back to 1760, when a sea voyage across the Atlantic could take up to six weeks – the project is set to “push the boundaries” of autonomous technology in the maritime sector, enhancing both performance and safety.

“We anticipate a long working relationship with our project partners.”

According to Andrew Watt, manager of LR’s Naval Business Centre of Excellence, the development phase of the project will constitute a two-year programme.

“However, we anticipate a long working relationship with our project partners as we continue to enhance system performance and work together to develop new capabilities for autonomous navigation systems,” he says.

“I believe that the capability of these systems are already very close to being a commercial product, and the aim of this project is to prove that.”

STEE is reported to have already developed and proven the system’s capability, while LR’s role, as a maritime consultancy, is to offer support on the likes of assurance, certification and regulation “for the application of autonomy in the maritime environment.”

Safety issues: Managing digital disruption

LR also has a track record in the safe adoption of digital technologies within the maritime and offshore sectors, having issued the industry’s first technical guidance on digital-enabled ships in 2016.

Last year, also saw the group announce that it had developed the first ever data-driven compliance framework for the marine and offshore industry.

“The major challenges are proving the system safety, as well as capability, and the lack of regulation.”

While digitisation is clearly here to stay, Watt says there are some aspects of it that need to be ironed out when it comes to ensuring safety.

“Today, the current major challenges of applying this technology in the maritime industry are proving the system safety, as well as capability, and the lack of regulation to support deployment,” he says.

“Both of these challenges exist in part due to a lack of evidence or experience relating to the performance of autonomous navigation systems onboard assets. This project will aim to gather more experience of these systems in operation, now in an open ocean environment, to provide key learnings on the safety of these systems and what the requirements of a regulatory framework could look like.”

If LR’s project proves to be successful, Watt believes it will provide a vital insight into “how future operating models could be applied to assets to help improve maritime safety, optimise asset performance and support seafarers during their operations”.

Drone alone? The impact of automation on crewing levels

But what of manpower? As in all cases of automation, some fear drone ships will render certain human roles obsolete. However, Watt disputes this is the endgame the maritime industry is seeking.

“Forms of autonomous navigation systems will be fitted in the next five years or so.”

“There is no intention to reduce crewing levels or move to unmanned bridge as part of this project,” he says.

“However, it’s likely the results may provide some insights into what one-man or unmanned bridge operations could look like in the future. I would anticipate that forms of autonomous navigations systems on bridges, such as intelligent auto-pilot systems with collision avoidance capability or decision support, will be fitted on a significant number of vessels in the next five years or so.

“That said, various additional factors remain such as legislation, public acceptance and established operating models for ship operators.”