Drones at Sea: Automated cargo ships to set sail by 2035

By 2035 the world’s cargo will be carried by 200m fully automated vessels operating entirely without an onboard human crew, according to researchers.

Carrying food and minerals, such ships will be safer, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate than current cargo vessels, according to members of MUNIN, a European Union-funded research project aiming to make unmanned cargo ships a reality.

“There aren’t many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today”, said researcher Ørnulf Rødseth.

“Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today’s vessel accidents.”

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These ships would be operated from a central onshore control centre, with one person responsible for up to ten vessels, and would only need a 3-4Mbit broadband connection to ensure adequate communication.

The researchers say that much of the technology needed for autonomous vessels exists, but the real challenge is demonstrating their safety.

“The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists,” said Rødseth.

“Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems. It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry.”

Maritime laws will need to be changed to enable unmanned vessels to be used, so a central focus will be proving the technology is at least as safe as current, manned vessels.

This is likely to involve initial voyages where the crew are onboard as a safety net but the autonomous system controls the vessel.

Most important will be the development and demonstration of a warning system to prevent ships colliding, which the researchers are confident can be achieved.

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Automated vessels do, however, create some unexpected issues that will need to be addressed.

A key concern is fuel: the heavy oil fuels used on current ships result in regular maintenance being needed, so an alternative fuel would have to be sought.

“Less expensive, liquid natural gas might be the answer here”, said Rødseth. “But this will involve designing the vessels from scratch”.

Not having humans onboard to perform maintenance will create what Rødseth describes as “our biggest challenge”, however such an issue could well be resolved with a team of maintenance bots – another technology that is seeing rapid development.

The vessels provide some clear cost savings, as they would remove the need to pay the wages of vast crews, as well as potential fuel savings. Whether the maritime industry will accept a technology that renders much of its workers unemployed, however, remains to be seen.


Bird’s eye view: Fighting rhino poaching with low-cost drones

Park rangers trying to tackle illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking could soon have a new tool, in the form of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can cover large distances to detect and locate poachers.

At the start of November, UAVs designed by teams from around the world will be put to the test in South Africa in a bid to find the ultimate anti-poaching drone.

This will be the final step in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge (wcUAVc), a competition that has been running since October 2013 to guide competing teams through the process of developing and constructing a cost-effective, robust drone to combat poaching.

The winning design will have a significant effect of the growing poaching problem in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where it will be used by park rangers to tackle the shocking levels of rhino poaching.

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While equipment does exist to fulfil this function, there is a pressing need for affordable UAVs with adequate sensing and communication technology to keep rangers informed.

Writing in The Futurist, wcUAVc founder Princess Aliyah Pandolfi explained the challenges with using existing drones to track poachers: “Kruger’s rangers had experimented with aircraft developed for other purposes, but affordable aircraft lacked the sensing, processing, and communications essential to the mission.”

The winning UAV should, however, resolve this issue. It will be able to be launched easily within the national park, withstand rugged terrain with several hours of operation time and detect poachers.

It will then use existing communication channels to alert park rangers, who can intervene before animals are hurt, before safely returning to its launch site for reuse.

All of this will need to be achieved for less than $3,000, meaning the competing teams face a significant challenge. However, existing systems will help; all rangers and visitors already carry RFID tags, making detection of unauthorised intruders significantly easier.

Kruger is home to a significant rhino population, but has seen a dramatic rise in poaching in recent years.

In 2000 only 7 rhinos died in South Africa, but by 2013 this had risen to 1004, with a similar number expected for 2014. There are fears that rhinos could die out completely by 2020 if nothing is done.

Rhinos are being poached for their horns, which are highly prized for use in medicine in China and Vietnam. As China’s middle class has grown over the past decade, it is believed that demand for such medicine has increased, prompting a rise in poaching.

“Perhaps in a few generations, the demand for rhino horn will decrease, but unless the poaching ends, the rhinos will be gone in just a few years,” said Pandolfi.