A new ship navigation simulator is helping engineers design autonomous freighters that can cross the oceans without a crew.
Advances in GPS, auto pilot, radars and sensors mean that the bridge of a modern ship is already largely automated and partners from five different countries working under the EU project MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) are using this technology to develop and test a concept for an unmanned freighter.
Such a vessel would be primarily guided by an automated on-board decision systems, but controlled by a remote operator in on shore control station, and the goal for the project is to have a fully working computer simulation that allows experts to test and review their ideas on a virtual basis by autumn 2015 ahead of a decision to fit out a real ship with the automated system.
An integral part of the project is the virtual simulator that onshore operators would use when situations that make human intervention necessary arise.
“Certain situations are conceivable in which the autonomous on-board systems are overextended, such as when multiple ships are simultaneously on collision course or technical breakdowns arise,” said Hans-Christoph Burmeister of the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services CML in Hamburg where the simulator is based.
The simulator features all the standard on-board instrumentation for a freight ship: an electronic maritime chart; a display of water depths; a monitor that displays the radar image and even a manual wheel to steer the ship.
As well as in emergencies, human intervention will be needed on entering or leaving port. When leaving harbour a crew will be present to handle the departure before leaving by pilot vessel or helicopter when the ship reaches open sea and another crew will be waiting to steer the vessel into its destination port.
But in general, the automated ship the project is aiming for will largely be self-reliant: autopilot steers a pre-set course with the support of GPS; a tempo automation system maintains the pace of speed; radar equipment and ship detection systems monitor the surroundings and sound the alarm if there is risk of a collision; while cameras and infrared sensors detect smaller vessels and flotsam.
Similarly automated engine rooms can be configured so they can be left unattended for up to 24 hours, with automatic sprinkler systems in case fires start. As a precaution, critical areas are flooded with CO2 so that no fire can catch in the first place.
For tough sea passages, the autopilot would be programmed to circumnavigate impending bad weather and turn the hull so that waves hit it as little as possible.