Massterly will upend ship-crew ratio, says WSM

Autonomous vessel Yara Birkeland. Credit: Kongsberg

As automation technology encroaches on ship operation, shipping might soon be in a situation where just two operatives, based in a shoreside command station, share ultimate responsibility for up to 10 vessels at a time, according to Massterly CEO Tom Eystø.

Yara Birkeland will become the first vessel for which the facility, based at Wilhelmsen Ship Management (WSM) headquarters in Oslo, is used. Staffed by WSM, the station comprises readouts with all the information, which would be available to an officer on deck. Crucially, however, it would be capable of switching between vessels. Demonstrating the system using a simulated bow-camera view from Yara Birkeland, Eystø explained that ultimate responsibility for the autonomous vessel would eventually be completely handed over to the centre.

WSM and Massterly, its joint venture with Kongsberg, anticipate that many more vessels will be governed by shoreside centres; the architecture would be conducive to one operator overseeing many vessels, Eystø said. “There will be two stations per vessel, but also a supervisor. There have been various studies done on this, and we estimate that one operator could handle six, seven, … possibly as many as 10 vessels.”

While many vessels still run aground, collide, or face other accidents even with a full contingent of crew on board, Massterly argues that forward leaps in ship automation will be able to make up for the shortfall, with vessel AIs able to select various ‘fall-back positions’, allowing them to avoid accidents even while not under direct human supervision. These include weighing anchor; going to one of various pre-defined ‘safe harbour’ positions along the route; or enabling manoeuvring using dynamic positioning (DP) mode.

The focus is on enabling the vessel to resolve compromising situations without human intervention, which Eystø believes will ultimately be safer: “The vessel is not dependent on interfacing with shore,” he said. “Some projects entail direct remote-control, but we are not pursuing that approach. Our role would be in terms of exception-handling.”

There are many concerns still to be addressed; with a point of failure shared between various different vessels, and more vulnerable to access onshore than on a vessel, WSM’s facility would be a prime target for a ransomware cyber attack along the lines of the NotPetya malware, which struck Maersk in 2017. To begin with, Eystø anticipates the role of the station will be to cover gaps in vessel manning rotas, or resolve alarms and engineering; but is adamant the barriers are regulatory, rather than technological. “Yara Birkeland is to be a fully autonomous ship, although it will sail with a skeleton crew for the first two years,” he said. “Every function you have on board will be available from the control centre.”