Stories of ghost ships sailing the oceans without a living soul on board have been around for as long as mankind has crossed the seas. But what used to be a cock-andbull story for centuries will now become reality. At a time where unmanned drones fly around the globe, public railway transportation systems run driverless in numerous cities and self-steering cars are on in-situ trial runs, unmanned and autonomous ships can no longer be perceived as unrealistic.
MUNIN, a collaborative research project funded under the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme, is developing a concept for a merchant ship able to conduct intercontinental voyages without any crew on board. The overall vision comprises a fleet of ships which are guided to and from port by an on-board control team and released to self-controlled operation for the open-sea passage. This temporary crew will disembark and return to their home port which is somewhat comparable to deep sea pilotage services already existing today. The fleet of autonomous and unmanned ships will be constantly monitored by a shore-based control station manned with skilled operators and engineers. Even though there will be the possibility of human intervention, the ships are designed and equipped in a way that allows them to solve unexpected problems by themselves. This comprises issues of weather routing and operation in rough seas, as well as small object detection and collision avoidance. The introduction of autonomy in merchant shipping is surely not at hand and without a doubt will require a certain effort from all parties involved in maritime transport. Yet, the idea offers tremendous opportunities for the industry. While automation at sea is still at a conceptual phase, automation in ports is already several steps ahead. Beyond the ever-improving distribution of data, automated cargo-handling has already found its way into many terminals. Gantry cranes load and unload ships while transport vehicles and portal cranes take care of the optimal distribution and storage of cargo – automation of these processes has limited human involvement to a necessary minimum. Such applied technologies are widely accepted, having already proven their suitability on an every-day basis. Mobile internet availability, as well as the establishment of DGPS and AIS, is greatly improving the safety of ship navigation and communication in coastal and harbour waters. Application of further technologies such as real-time tidal prediction systems, berthing assistance systems, as well as load monitoring systems for ship mooring lines, represent already existing opportunities for further automation.