Can sailing into the past inspire an autonomous future?

30th September 2020
Richard Crowther
Associate Maritime Engineer

It’s no secret that nations across the world are trying to develop infrastructure in response to the demands of growing populations while also aiming to meet global climate change objectives. Could our historic waterways hold the key to unlocking a solution that allows nations to strike this delicate balance?

Clearly, the reliability and efficiency of the supply chain is essential towards maintaining the standards of living and levels of accessibility that we are becoming accustomed to. Meeting the expectations of the ever-demanding global consumer is a challenge exacerbated by population growth, congestion, limited investments, environmental pressures and aging equipment.

Historically, investment in maritime solutions has focussed on port infrastructure spending, creating larger, higher capacity and more efficient terminals. In doing so, cargo terminals have moved further away from populated city centres, driven by land availability, rising costs, ease of access and environmental issues. However, with this shift comes the demand for reliable connections to the hinterland, which are usually road or rail-based. Unfortunately, road and rail transportation are also becoming more congested and subsequently contributing to deteriorating air quality and rising carbon emissions – leaving us with the responsibility to look for greener, cleaner and healthier alternatives.

In coastal waters where the sea is relatively calm, such as the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf, coastal barges or smaller feeder vessels may well be a viable solution.

Water freight hinterland connections

With water freight already established as the most cost-effective way of transporting goods around the world, we must question why it is not being more commonly used for local distribution within countries, particularly in densely populated areas where last mile delivery is more challenging.

Recent studies reveal that water freight assessment on the River Thames through London, where historical wharves, which are protected from development but currently lie unused or underutilised, could be redeveloped into small freight handling hubs.

Major European ports, such as Rotterdam are already transshipping large volumes of cargo onto barges, moving goods along the Rhine to destinations in the hinterland, including as far away as Switzerland, without requiring land-based transport systems. Electric barges, or ‘Tesla ships’ are also being developed, suggesting that this trend holds some weight. Cargo that is less sensitive to delivery time (e.g. non-foodstuffs), can afford this slower yet more efficient transportation solution. The model is well established at various container terminals operating within the Port of Rotterdam, proving that the concept is viable and effective.

Whilst the concept of increasing the ‘modal split’ towards river and canal transportation is less applicable in places like the Middle East and similar geographic regions, coastal services could instead provide the same principles. Again, this concept already exists in a form, with ‘feeder’ services in the region already moving cargo from large port facilities to smaller ports; albeit on a much larger scale, with 200 metre feeder vessels serving smaller ports. Examples in the United Arab Emirates such as DP World’s Unifeeder regional trade solutions can deliver as far afield as India, giving access to a wider customer base. We have also seen via the latest feeder service to be announced by Abu Dhabi Ports, ‘Safeen Feeders’, that this concept is becoming a more critical component of supply chain nodes in the region. These feeder services are utilising larger vessels, but in coastal waters where the sea is relatively calm, such as the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf, coastal barges or smaller feeder vessels may well be a viable solution.

Alongside the efficiencies gained through fully autonomous cargo handling operation, the absence of human operators significantly improves safety and reduces the chance of error.

Water freight for the future

By focussing on the development of smaller water-freight logistics solutions, technological developments, which are currently not suitable for the large ocean-going container vessels, can be looked at in more detail.  A number of shipbuilders are attempting to develop the world’s first zero emission, autonomous container feeder vessel.  These fully-electric and, in some cases, autonomous container vessels have been estimated to reduce diesel-powered truck transport by around 40,000 journeys per year, per vessel.

In fact, autonomous vessels are already in operation in the Middle East, with Dubai-based DP World launching its first autonomous security boats earlier this year. It is understood these fully autonomous surveillance boats can be remotely controlled from a central control room, allowing them to function day or night.  With container terminals and portside equipment already becoming highly automated, it is not an inconceivable step to see larger-scale, automated cargo vessels come into operation within the next decade.

With autonomous mooring and berthing systems already in operation in a number of facilities, the berthing of these vessels in a cargo terminal should prove to be technically feasible. These systems, combined with autonomous cargo handling, could allow the entire cargo handling operation to be undertaken automatically, with limited human intervention. Alongside the efficiencies gained through fully autonomous cargo handling operation, the absence of human operators significantly improves safety and reduces the chance of error.

However, in order to facilitate a seamless transfer system for goods, careful planning and design is essential to control the interface between a port and a vessel. From an engineering standpoint, one possible solution may be dedicated infrastructure design. Rather than providing a length of quay that permits berthing along its entire length, the design would be for a particular vessel type. This may be a new concept for container terminals, which are designed for a range of vessels, owned and operated by parties that do not necessarily have an interest in a particular port, but is not unheard of in other parts of the maritime sector. An example of this can be seen if we look at ferry terminals, where the vessel owners and operators are often the terminal owners and operators, thus allowing infrastructure and vessels to be designed to perfectly complement each other. The ferry operator Scandlines, in Denmark and Germany, is a great illustration of this, developing port infrastructure that facilitates automated mooring and berthing, and therefore extremely rapid loading and discharging of Roll-on/Roll-off (RoRo) traffic and overall turnaround time.

Efficient and highly-integrated vessel and terminal operations are not just a possibility, they are a probability. With major operators expanding capabilities in the wider logistics sector, including feeder services, a nod to transport modes of the past could spark a new era of fully-integrated, autonomous transshipment services and vessels operating before the turn of the next decade.

As city centres and roads grow more congested, resulting in current modes of freight transportation grinding to a literal halt, utilising the rivers, canals, and coastal routes at our disposal could offer a compelling solution to transport goods efficiently, autonomously, and intelligently. In turn, this could ultimately help society navigate the future and leave logistical and environmental challenges in our wake.