A European Union-funded research project called MUNIN is looking to make international cargo shipping more energy and cost efficient, essentially turning “seafaring” into a desk job. The goal of the MUNIN project is to create autonomous ships that can sail themselves from port to port. This would reduce energy consumption by lessening lighting, eliminating fresh water production, and getting rid of an onboard crew. The project is the subject of a workshop at the SMM maritime conference in Hamburg, Germany.
The major technical challenge of totally autonomous ships is the issue of hardware failure. A ship’s transit time could be anywhere from two to three weeks on many trips, and a loss of communications or sensor data would be difficult or impossible to deal with without crew onboard. On the upside, a single operator could, according to researchers, pilot up to 10 cargo vessels simultaneously from a control centre ashore, with a three- to four-megabit-per-second data link to each ship.
MUNIN ships would rely on electrical propulsion powered by natural gas instead of marine diesel fuel or the “bunker oil” used by some older ships. This would reduce maintenance requirements and allow for redundancy that could keep a ship moving even with system failures. The technology could also present a solution to piracy, since unmanned ships would be less vulnerable to hijacking (though they might be more vulnerable to remote hacking).
Fully robotic ships based on the MUNIN concepts are at least a decade away. However, the technologies could be adopted on existing ships much sooner.