asko marit and therese (1)
Asko Marit and Therese, Asko's hi-tech ro-ro barges

Automating feeder and deepsea vessels has been “much harder than we first thought”, but is becoming closer to reality, according to Kongsberg Massterly.

Based in Norway, Massterly is the world’s first dedicated company operating autonomous vessels, a joint-venture between Wilhelmsen and Kongsberg Maritime, and believes that without the cost of crew, feeder trades become much more financially attractive and could take over many major trucking routes.

But Berit Floor Lund, director of research at Kongsberg Discovery, told The Loadstar it was regulators and flag states that remained hesitant.

“The technology is ready, it’s not about that. It is about being allowed to put it out there, trust it and see that it works.”

Since the introduction of the ‘world’s first autonomous box ship’ Yara Birkeland, automation of navigation, throttle response and other aspects of operation have blurred the definition of the “autonomous” ship and, as yet, no cargo vessel appears to have set sail without any crew on board.

But with dedicated unmanned vessels under construction for other ship operations, this may be about to change.

Kongsberg this week received approval in principle from classification society DNV for its Chief-to-Shore function, which could allow one of the most technically advanced roles on a ship – that of the chief engineer – to be performed from a shoreside operations centre, analogous to an air traffic control room.

It has been testing this and similar automation measures with Asko, a Norwegian grocery wholesaler, which uses hi-tech ro-ro barges to carry trucks between islands. A dwindling number of crew remain on the barges, with most administrative and navigation tasks performed from control rooms ashore. 

Meanwhile, the Reach Remote 1, a remote-operated wind farm service vessel, is under construction at Trosvik shipyard in Breivik, Norway, and is much smaller and less energy-hungry than a conventionally crewed vessel of its type, capable of cutting fuel consumption by 90%.

But for a crewless feeder or deepsea container vessel, the saving would be much smaller, closer to 10%.

“We underestimated the challenge,” said Ms Lund. “The less you know about something, the easier you think it is. And then you dive into it and start to learn more about the complexity.”

With crew present for oversight, Kongsberg systems have been used to conduct some 20,000 ferry crossings, including automated docking. Yara Birkeland has gone from six crew, to three on board and two operating remotely from shore. Later this year, it is set to reduce to two onboard.

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