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Autonomous ship pioneers to reap rewards

Kongsberg Maritime vice-president Oscar Levander says shipowners that move fast and embrace autonomous shipping will have a significant competitive advantage

Shift towards unmanned vessels a true game-changer, says Levander

SHIPOWNERS who take the lead on ship autonomy will be rewarded handsomely and gain a significant competitive advantage, according to a prominent figure within the technology’s development.

Oscar Levander, who as head of marine innovation at Kongsberg Maritime Finland has been at the forefront of autonomous ship design for more than six years, said the potential of autonomous ships could not be understated, calling the shift towards unmanned vessels a “true game-changer”.

He said that since Rolls-Royce Marine unveiled its vision for autonomous ships, numerous discussions had taken place with shipowners and cargo owners as to where the technology could be best used and provide the best business case.

Initial findings suggested that autonomy was best suited to smaller vessel types, where the return on investment is relatively short, he said.

“You can pay it back in a couple of years, but for larger sizes the return on investment will take considerably longer,” he told the International Ship Autonomy and Sustainability Summit at the start of Nor-Shipping in Oslo.

Mr Levander, who was at Rolls-Royce Marine before its commercial marine business was sold to Kongsberg, said research showed that even when the market was bad and freight rates were low, there was a “tremendous difference” for smaller ships between the earnings of unmanned and manned vessels.

“For the shipowner… it shows how the early mover will gain an advantage,” he said  “When the conventional ship stays in port because it is not attractive to take a charter, the unmanned ship will still make money. It is not only about reducing the cost, it is actually about enabling the shipowner to play the market in a different way and utilise the asset.”

Mr Levander said there was the potential for more than one third of the world’s fleet to switch to unmanned operations.

The business case was particularly strong in the domain of cargo vessels moving non-hazardous cargoes, ferries, tugs and other smaller units in the confines of the port, as well as on inland waterways.

For smaller cargo vessels, he said, the big positive was that this was where there were significant volumes.

On the flipside, he said there was not such a strong case for larger vessels, notably containerships plying the main east-west trades, passengerships and oil and gas carriers.

Although the latter could be attractive economically, the risks involved with autonomous technology in its relative infancy were too high, Mr Levander said. The major stumbling block for autonomous ships, in addition to the technology, which also required significant investment, was also the regulation to support its adoption.

Mr Levander said that until regulators could iron out firm guidelines and legislation, autonomous technology is at an impasse.

Although he was under no illusion that there was a quick fix in this regard, he stressed that there was  huge market potential that could “truly redefine shipping as we know it”.

He added: “We have these solutions that can help, but we need the regulation quickly so that we can implement these new technologies.”

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