Autopilot Developed for Autonomous Ships

A demonstration control room for an autonomous ship.

Published Jun 19, 2017 7:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland has developed an autopilot system for remotely-monitored, autonomous ships that is capable of taking evasive action according to International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

The Apilot autopilot, undergoing testing by VTT, has three modes: track, heading and slow joystick control - used for docking situations.

In 'track mode', Apilot steers the ship along a previously agreed route. If the ship detects another vessel, which must be avoided, the autopilot switches to 'heading mode'. This enables Apilot to avoid the other vessel with a small change in the ship's heading. Autopilot returns to track mode after the other vessel has been avoided.

In 'joystick mode', control and propulsion equipment are adjusted for low speeds maneuverings. Apilot puts the ship into the desired operating mode, for example to maneuver sideways into a dock.

In all situations, the autopilot ensures that the ship remains within a set distance from the planned route. If these limits are exceeded, the autopilot gives a warning and remote control must be taken of the ship.

The researchers have connected the system to a simulator that models ship traffic. Two scenarios in the Helsinki sea area have been prepared to demonstrate different passing conditions and docking maneuvers.

Senior Research Scientist Jussi Martio of VTT says unmanned ships will could be a reality in the 2030s, as it takes time to change international legislation.

Finland was among the countries that called on IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 98) this month to develop rules for safe autonomous shipping. Consequently, the IMO agreed to launch a study investigating the need to amend current regulations including the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) and Safety of Life at Sea convention (SOLAS), which have ingrained criteria requiring manned operations of vessels in international waters.

The proposal to include autonomous ships on the IMO agenda was submitted by Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, United Kingdom and the U.S. The Danish Maritime Authority is about to finalize a study of maritime regulations that will be affected by autonomous ships. 

The discussion on autonomous shipping gave rise to a prolonged debate at MSC, highlighting that many safety and legal issues still need to be resolved. However, it was generally agreed that the IMO needs to start its work now. There was also general agreement that the IMO must take into consideration how developments will affect seafarers.