The Role of Autonomous Vessels and Advanced Navigation Systems in Improving Red Sea Shipping Efficiency and Safety
1. Introduction
The Red Sea is one of the world’s most important waterways. It links the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, providing the shortest sea route between Europe and the lands lying to the east and south of the Indian Ocean. Its unique location has made the Red Sea an essential route for world trade, with the Suez Canal being its primary access. The canal itself is constrained by the size of the ships it can accommodate. This limitation influenced the construction of the so-called “Suezmax” vessels, the largest size of vessel capable of transiting the Suez Canal whose only constraints are with draught, and damaged the economic prospects of the alternative Cape of Good Hope route around the southern tip of Africa. Various studies (Kuhn, 2006) have shown a diverse mixture of current and projected vessel types using the Red Sea. With continual growth in world trade and the economic prosperity of the countries in its region, it is expected that the Red Sea’s role as a vital route in world trade will continue to increase. This could mean potential vessel traffic problems and safety issues that the Red Sea and Suez Canal may not be able to cope with.
The vast majority of world trade is transported by sea. Maritime transport is a key element in the global economy, underpinning high-value international trade of consumer and industrial goods, as well as the energy and raw materials that are the foundation of the world economic system. To keep up with increasing demand for maritime transport, the shipping industry has been growing rapidly over the last few decades. However, this has brought about concerns such as vessel traffic congestion, safety of navigation, marine environment protection, and resource sustainability.
1.1 Background of Red Sea shipping industry
Based on UNCTAD statistics, the Red Sea (which is classified as a separate region) has had a steady improvement in its share of seaborne trade volume. With an annual average growth rate of 3.7%, the region’s trade volume increased from 200 million tons in 2001 to 280 million tons in 2014. Imports have increased by 80% and exports are up by 50% during the 2001-2014 period. The commodities being traded are mostly dry and liquid bulk. These include crude oil and petroleum products, iron ore for steel production, and grains. The corresponding Red Sea freight market had shown positive developments with increased freight rates and a dramatic increase in the number of voyage and time charter contracts being concluded. This data indicates potential prosperity for the shipping industry along the Red Sea. However, there is the other side to the coin.
Background of Red Sea shipping industry has evolved in numerous ways over the past few decades. Developing countries have increased their participation in the trade and manufacturing industries, resulting in numerous opportunities and challenges. According to a case study published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), over 80% of global trade by volume and 70% by value are carried out by sea. The case study noted that the trend in shipping market patterns has indicated a shift in traffic from the “old trades” (Europe to the United States and Europe to the Far East) to the “new trades” such as the routes from the Far East to the Middle East and from Europe to South Asia. These changes have led to an overall consistent growth in the volume of world seaborne trade with signs of increasing ship sizes to accommodate the goods being transported.
1.2 Importance of improving efficiency and safety
In the shipping industry, the role of technology has increased dramatically in recent years. A clear example of this has been the implementation of GPS and AIS (Automatic Identification System) tracking devices on vessels. These systems allow for more accurate tracking of vessels at sea, making it easier to predict arrival times at ports and reducing the risk of collision with other vessels. The more recent development of autonomous vessels has potential to further revolutionize the industry in the coming years. By following pre-determined GPS routes and controlled by advanced software, such vessels could potentially be both safer and more efficient than manned vessels, as human error would be eliminated. Primary research into this technology is currently limited, but is expected to increase in the next few years.
With a significant increase in global trade over the past few decades, it has become ever more important to ensure efficient and safe shipping routes for commercial vessels. For economies reliant on import and export of goods, delays in shipping can have a sizeable impact on the cost of goods, with any increase in efficiency leading to a decrease in cost.
1.3 Purpose and objectives of the thesis
The main purpose of this thesis is to examine certain aspects of the current status of the Red Sea shipping industry and to project these to determine where the industry is headed in the near future. This is to be achieved by identifying the various elements of the shipping industry in the Red Sea, encompassing all involved with the movement of goods to be traded. This includes the transportation aspects, such as ships, ports, and storage areas, and the people that facilitate the trade. An evaluation of the industry will be conducted to determine the efficiency of each element and to identify any standards of safety that are currently in place. The main goal is to determine how efficient the industry is, and the safety standards provide a comparison to efficiency, in that shortcuts to save time or money are often at the expense of safety. This evaluation will provide a clear understanding of where the industry currently stands.
The next step is to project the various trends in the shipping industry in and around the Red Sea and to make an inference on the influence of these global or regional changes on the shipping industry in that area. The most significant trend in shipping at present is the increase in security measures forced upon trading nations since the September 11 terrorist attacks. This issue has a profound effect on world trade and may alter traditional shipping routes in certain regions. Another example is the current trend of shipbuilders to produce ever-larger vessels, which has many implications on smaller ports and shipping lanes. The effects of such trends will provide an understanding as to where the industry is headed and will assist in identifying areas where efficiency and safety standards may be improved.
2. Autonomous Vessels in Red Sea Shipping
Research on unmanned maritime systems (UMS) has been a hot topic nowadays. And when we talk about unmanned systems, the first thing that comes to mind is a system that can conduct a task or a mission without direct human involvement. This system has been around for a very long time, mostly used in the military for their weapons systems (aircraft, missiles, drones, etc.). But lately, the technology has evolved and the civilian application of UMS has been widely researched. In the maritime sector, ships are starting to transform from conventional to a more modern and advanced system. One of the concepts is the unmanned autonomous vessel. This system could be the future of shipping. Although right now the main problem is the transition of the technology itself and the legality and certification needed for achieving these autonomous ships. This could lead to two different types of vessels: a conventional vessel by reducing the human workforce and replacing it with a remote control system, or a semi-autonomous vessel with features of decision assistance from artificial intelligence to reduce the chance of human error, and an unmanned vessel which is the main focus of this essay. Step by step transition will be needed for achieving this concept and the final goal would be a fully autonomous vessel.
Autonomous vessels are a new innovation in the shipping industry, so their concept is still relatively unknown to most people. Ideally, autonomous is a system that can plan, execute, and deliver a task with minimum human intervention or without human involvement at all. According to IMO, an autonomous ship is a ship that is able to make decisions and conduct tasks with minimum human intervention. A simpler way to look at autonomy is by seeing it as a robot. An autonomous vessel will have intelligence that has the capability to analyze situations, make decisions, learn from given feedback, and adapt for improvements. All of those features will be embedded in the ship’s control system. But since the current technology cannot provide something as complex as that, right now the most advanced one is still a decision assistance system with artificial intelligence.
2.1 Definition and characteristics of autonomous vessels
The utilization of automation in ships is not a new concept. Unmanned vessels have been in use for decades, but with recent advances in technology, the scope and functionality of unmanned ships has increased exponentially. At its essence, an autonomous ship is still a vessel that carries goods, like any manned ship. The differences are in how the ships functions; how it is controlled and where the decision-making processes lie. There are many reasons for the automation of ships. Due to the shortfall of seafarers, coupled with an increase in maritime traffic and the subsequent incidents at sea, there is a demand to develop and redefine the role of the ship. Whether it be to lessen the amount of seafarers required, advance the safety of life at sea, or for more efficient transportation at a low cost, there is a case for all of these with regards to the autonomous ship. It is nevertheless the advancement in computer control and the associated technology in this field, which has propelled the concept back into the mainstream and captured the attention of industry, academia, and the world in general.
2.2 Advantages of autonomous vessels in the Red Sea
There are various advantages and new opportunities with the use of autonomous ships in the Red Sea. Automated operations could decrease ship traffic in the region and lead to reduced collisions with coral reefs. A more predictable ship traffic pattern would also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the ALOTAQ system. As a reliable traffic pattern is established, vessels can begin to take advantage of route-specific voyage planning services like the one created by Rosenberger (2007). This will add a new level of efficiency to shipping in the region and utilize the full potential of ECDIS. Another advantage of autonomous ships is the increased safety when compared to manned vessels. Approximately 70% to 80% of ship accidents are attributed to human error, so the total removal of humans from the ship and its operations will greatly decrease the chance of a shipping accident. This, in turn, will decrease the environmental impact of shipping on the Red Sea. Jeddah and Suez are among the top 20 ports in the world with reported incidents of oil spills, and each one has had at least one major incident since the year 2000. With improved ship safety, there will be a decreased chance of oil spills that have a detrimental effect on the fragile marine ecosystems in the Red Sea. This would also create a new opportunity in risk-based management of the Red Sea with increased shipping safety and environmental protection.
2.3 Challenges and limitations of implementing autonomous vessels
The next challenge is to convince ship users such as charterers and ship operators, who will have to be assured that autonomous vessels are at least as safe as traditional vessels and possibly more cost-effective. This would first require extensive safety case demonstrations. The door-to-door operation of vessels may also mean that there will sometimes have to be a transition of vessel operations and shared space with autonomous and manned vessels, and it may still be relevant to prove a degree of manning on autonomous vessels during the transition phase.
Initially, the technology of autonomous vessels is not yet fully developed, and there are many different aspects of autonomous and unmanned ship operations, such as secure communications, human factors, and robust algorithms for decision making in various complex situations, including collision avoidance. These are not only limited to developing new systems but also to address the many different existing international regulations with consideration to IMO resolutions, COLREGS, and STCW regarding the required conventions and rules for traditional manned vessels.
In implementing autonomous vessels in the Red Sea, there are several potential challenges and limitations when compared to manned and traditional shipping. These challenges should be approached through continued research and development to create new technologies, innovative methods, and potentially to redefine the ship operations and regulations for future autonomous vessel applications.
3. Advanced Navigation Systems for Red Sea Shipping
For sea transport, navigation holds a great deal of importance because the commodity of the shipping business is the safe transportation of goods from one place to another. The most important thing in navigational information is the practical routes and timely warnings when the voyage is in progress. The navigators require to identify the presence of any dangers of the surrounding environment and have the capability to predict the consequences of their potential actions. Having a means of positive identification of the location of the surrounding objects, navigational aids and service means that they need to assess the situation and make proper decisions while at the same time acquire the route information and abide by the constraints given estimated time of arrival. Requirements for modern navigation from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) depict the use of an electronic navigational system to enhance safety, by ensuring precise navigation while the ship is underway and during approaches to port and in coastal waters.
3.1 Overview of advanced navigation systems
The modern day ships, apart from the machine-powered steering control, are still navigated by humans using wheel and control levers, and the changing course of the ship is fed into the autopilot system using these control devices. The concept of autonomous ships seems appealing only when it can be ensured that the course taken by an autonomous ship can be safer and more reliable than a conventional navigated ship. This can be first tested using the navigation algorithms being considered highly advanced than the conventional methods and can be used on conventional ships before they are used on the autonomous ones. These systems should be integrated into the e-navigation infrastructure over the coming two decades and could improve voyage planning, enhanced route monitoring, and the overall safety and efficiency of navigation. This progress in navigation technology is said to be an enabler for the introduction of autonomous ships, which can also help the industry solve current and future skills shortages at sea. An autonomous system can be tested for reliability by using it to control the conventional ship and comparing the performance and reliability with the conventional on-board and off-board decision making and taking successful decision as a proof of concept for testing the autonomous ship in the same scenario. This method can also be used to evaluate autonomous systems for resolving issues with the operation of ships currently in service.
3.2 Application of advanced navigation systems in the Red Sea
Automatic Identification System (AIS): The Red Sea, unlike its name, has a small land mass and narrow waterway, with its minimum width being 120 miles wide, going up to a maximum of 190 miles. Land clutter is still a big issue on many ECDIS. There are areas where ECDIS can be switched on for ‘monitoring purposes only’. This is not acceptable; the ship should maintain paper charts in this situation. AIS is used by ships and vessel traffic services to plot the location and (where implemented) the identity of the ship at all times. With a high update rate, it is far more accurate than radar in narrow channels and high traffic areas. This could enable ships to travel to and from the Red Sea using AIS and ECDIS alone to navigate, reducing manning costs. With near perfect identification of other vessel location and destination, it is very easy to avoid other ships and plan to overtake in a manner that will not inconvenience others. Due to the huge cliffs and underwater hazards, there is some concern of the AIS taking the straight route across the narrowest points in the Red Sea, rather than the long routes around hazards that are currently used. This system is still in its starting stage, with the ‘recommended’ triangle actually being compulsory only in a few areas. One must hope that the long routes into heavily monitored and controlled areas, such as the Suez Canal, will remain a requirement.
3.3 Benefits and potential drawbacks of advanced navigation systems
Despite the obvious efficiency and safety benefits of e-navigation technology, there are also potential drawbacks, particularly for certain sectors of the shipping industry. As automated systems allow ships to operate with less direct human input, there may be an increased risk of complacency among navigators. Since ISPS implementation in 2004 it has been mandatory for ships to employ armed guards when transiting pirate high-risk areas. This has brought about a recent trend of increased security for professional mariners, particularly those on oil tankers and merchant ships. The use of armed guards may conflict with the long-term goal of autonomous vessels in the Red Sea.
Advanced navigation systems also have the potential to improve the efficiency of shipping through the Red Sea. Route optimisation software can improve the transit time of vessels by identifying the quickest and safest passage through the Red Sea. Similarly, just as ECDIS has enabled ships to navigate on a ‘paperless’ basis, it may be possible for ships to operate autonomously in the future, thus reducing the cost and environmental impact of maintaining a crew.
Recent advances in navigation are of great benefit to shipping efficiency and safety. Automated systems such as AIS and ECDIS are reducing the risk of collisions and groundings. Examples from other areas of the world have shown that the implementation of e-navigation technology can significantly decrease the likelihood of marine accidents. In the UK, for instance, it has been estimated that the risk of running aground for a ship using ECDIS is 1.22% of the risk of a similar ship using paper charts.
4. Enhancing Efficiency and Safety in Red Sea Shipping
The role of autonomous vessels is a step into the future for the shipping industry but has already been the topic of extensive research. RP missions have been identified as building blocks for moving the industry towards full vessel autonomy. Missions for an Oil Tanker and a Tug/Tow operation conducted interviews to determine data needs, then built a system using intelligent agents to present a decision support system for a specified scenario. This was aimed at minimizing input required from the operator and providing an autonomous solution. Interview answers were used to determine system requirements and agent attributes, then the system was verified against the operator in a trial and error process. This provided proof of concept for the possibility of autonomous vessels, gaining an idea of the decisions that need to be made and furthers the idea that said vessels can be operated safely, efficiently, and with low risk. Full vessel autonomy operation has been intensely researched using unsupervised learning strategies, comparing the yen of labor with the operational value of decisions made in a complex, scenario-based environment. It was established that an autonomous system could operate requiring the minimum possible operation from operators to extract full value and operational decisions of said system.
Integration of autonomous vessels and advanced navigation in the Red Sea is expected to have a significant impact on both the efficiency and safety of shipping. A detailed conceptual analysis of the efficiency and safety issues of the Red Sea is beyond the scope of this paper; however, a brief discussion will provide evidence that the technology will be of benefit and, in fact, is unlikely to be implemented without it. The technology is targeted at the international shipping industry. As such, the Red Sea is merely one area where the technology is likely to have an impact. As a narrow and busy shipping lane, the Red Sea provides an interesting case study for the impact of autonomous vessels on the efficiency of a shipping lane and the navigation system safety benefits in terms of collision avoidance.
4.1 Integration of autonomous vessels and advanced navigation systems
There are a number of ways in which efficiency and safety in the Red Sea can be improved by various advances in maritime technology, but perhaps the most fundamental and widespread change which can be made is the move to autonomous vessels. An autonomous vessel is highly integrated and able to make decisions for itself regarding its route, speed and behavior given the parameters surrounding the mission. It has the capability to perceive the environment and various obstacles, and be able to make decisions dependent on its analysis of these, such as deviating from a planned route if an obstacle is detected to be too close to this path. The simplest way of making an autonomous vessel is to take an existing manned platform and convert it to be unmanned, however in the long term it is likely that purpose-built ship designs will emerge that are able to take full advantage of the lack of a crew and the other associated changes, such as new methods of power generation and storage. At the same time, it is likely that certain transitional forms of autonomy will be seen, such as vessels which are normally manned being teleoperated for some missions and the aforementioned gradual change in ship design to better suit autonomous operation. Given the wide variety of ships and ship roles in the maritime industry, it is likely that a similar variety of autonomous solutions will be adopted and that full autonomy will take a considerable length of time to be reached.
4.2 Impact on shipping efficiency in the Red Sea
Navigation and routing determine the paths that ships travel along. Navigation is the science of finding the position and directing the ship from one place to another, while routing is the onshore or on-board process which leads to the determination of the most suitable route on which a ship can travel. As a science, navigation is still poorly understood. The human element has a considerable effect on navigation and routing decisions. Large individual variations in the execution of work are observed between different officers, and these account for wide differences in the performance of apparently similar ships. IMarEST has conducted a number of studies aimed at understanding the human element in navigation. These studies show that officers are often required to manually alter the speed and rudder of the ship in response to the actions of other traffic; this is particularly true of watches stood in areas of dense traffic. In general, routing whatsoever emerges from the decisions of individual officers tends to be poorly coordinated with the routing of other ships. Simulation studies have shown that when autonomous ships are given destination waypoints and routing constraints such as areas to avoid, they are able to determine coordinated collision-free routes with the use of only local communications between ships. This is because there are algorithms available which guarantee the solution of the routing problem given the existence of such a solution; humans are not always able to find a proper solution to the problem, and sometimes the decision to change the route is taken with only partial consideration of information concerning the position and intended action of other ships. Compiled automatic route Traffic Control regulations still permit autonomous ships to decide how compliance should be achieved, and development of suitable algorithms for constrained optimization control will be a vibrant area of research in future years. Onshore routing tasks are also suitable for automation with the use of coordinated autonomous ships. Provision exists to design global routes at sea, or the ships may have to transport to and from location. In this case, the model of ships as particles with no hulls may be used to determine cost-efficient routes with algorithms from physical sciences. The where ships are to travel from one place to another corresponds to instructions in a product transportation problem, and it is feasible that autonomous ships may be involved in logistics activities for the transportation of goods. In changes to onshore routing and the nature of sea transport, it may be the case that the latest developments in navigation will be adaptations, recognitions of replications of successful human decisions.
4.3 Impact on safety measures and risk reduction
Due to advanced navigation systems and the stored data that will be accumulated on the characteristics of the Red Sea, ship routing and track keeping will be made more precise. This reduces the likelihood of vessels veering off course and making contact with the numerous uncharted underwater obstacles, which has been a primary cause of ship groundings in the past. One incident of the hitting of the reef or wreck can be disastrous. An example is the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. It spilled more than 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Alaska, and although it was equipped with the most current navigation systems at the time, human error was identified as the main cause of the incident (Davies, 2002) and other ships have been found to still be in the wrong location decades after their initial impact. Tide and current features will also be taken into account when deciding when is the best time for the ship to sail. High current spring tide periods have been known to significantly increase safety risk with one of the most dreaded spots being the Bab al Mandab Strait, which has seen many a ship accident.
As discussed in the previous section, the integration of autonomous vessels and advanced navigation systems in the Red Sea shipping sector is predicted to increase shipping efficiency and thus increase the amount of shipping traffic. It has been a common belief that automation leads to a reduction in the number of crew required to perform a certain task, in this case vessel operation, although there was no clear evidence to support this (Brooks, 1990). However, this was strongly refuted by all of the experts and industry personnel. With automation taking over simple and monotonous tasks, this will free up human resources to allow fuller concentration on tasks that required detailed decision-making processes.
4.4 Future prospects and recommendations for further improvement
Apart from reducing human error and intervention, the implementation of autonomous vessels and advanced navigation systems could further improve shipping efficiency and safety in the Red Sea. The role autonomous vessels and systems play in developing the efficiency in shipping within the Red Sea is through the 24-hour nonstop service it provides and fuel consumption. At present, the main users of remote control vessels in the Red Sea are tunnel drilling/support vessels (mainly Suez Canal) and offshore vessels (mainly in the Gulf of Suez). Unmanned surface vessels will be in use by 2010. This will affect diesel-electric submarines in the future, as well as the design in new submarines, greatly improving the capabilities and reducing manpower. The concept of stationary communication buoys providing a virtual cable between the operator and the underwater vessel would still be in use for future unmanned vessels.
AUV technology will have caught up to unmanned surface vessel technology and be more widespread. The Red Sea, being a relatively calm body of water, makes it an ideal location for AUVs. AUVs can perform surveys and mapping in a much shorter time period than present methods while producing higher quality 3D terrain maps. This will greatly contribute to the safety of shipping by updating charts and detecting any obstacles in the ship’s path. Development of an AUV “garage” is also a future possibility. This is essentially a submersible pod in which a vessel can dock with the pod and recharge its batteries and download data.

Published by
Write essays
View all posts