The Move to Unmanned Operations

Tuesday January 29th, 2019 TAGS:

Written by Dan Hook, Senior Director Business Development, for BMT Focus Issue 1, 2019.

Working at sea can be tough. Many of us will have had the opportunity to experience the cold, the wet, the heat, the constant motions, the cramped spaces and the isolation from home life. On top of this are the dangers presented by heavy equipment, powerful machinery and the ever-present risk of being knocked overboard or falling. All of this gets worse as we become tired after days, weeks or months of exposure.

Significant improvements have been made over the years. Designs have become inherently safer, training has developed, and risk analysis and project planning have removed some of the dangers at source.

Giant Leaps

In the 21st Century we now have the technology and understanding to make one of the largest ever steps forward in the maritime industry. That is the move to unmanned operations at sea where we can significantly cut the number of people exposed directly to dangers and place them in safe remote operations centres.

This will come with added advantages in operational efficiency, management, shift working and persistent accuracy that unmanned systems offer.

On top of this, the design freedom of reduced manning requirements will allow for smaller or more space efficient vessels, reducing fuel consumption and build costs.

In many roles it is now feasible, today, for the vessel to be completely unmanned, with nobody on board or at risk, and a remote operations centre running the vessel. Indeed there are some roles where this is unlikely to ever be the case and people will remain at the very centre of operations offshore.

This suggests there is also a ‘middle ground’ where some roles are completed remotely and the crew count onboard is reduced, along with the risk exposure.

Who Does What

The discussion topic of which role belongs in which category will always be a contentious one, especially with the added complexity of location, environment, regulation and operational details.

A list of examples of which L3 ASV has some experience or evidence for classifying is provided on the next page for discussion. A general observation from L3 ASV is that the left-hand column (feasible today) is growing fast and the right-hand column is shrinking as people open their minds to the potential offered by remote machinery, robotics and autonomy.

Whole System Safety Engineering

To ensure that the roles that are feasible today, and the lean manning opportunities are maximised, it is important that whole system safety engineering is rigorously applied. The latest in sensor processing, system monitoring, data analytics and digital world model development will need to be exploited.


Feasible roles for complete unmanned operations today.

  • Hydrographic Survey Launches
  • Small open ocean data gathering platforms
  • Acoustic positioning / communications vessels in Oil and Gas operations
  • Oil spill response / boom boats
  • Weapons training targets
  • MCM vessels (sweep, hunt, dispose)
  • ASW Barrier vessels
  • Small, dedicated ISR platforms.

‘Middle Ground’ roles that are suitable for lean or reduced manning through the application of remote or autonomous technologies.

  • Warships
  • ROV ships
  • Deepwater survey vessels
  • Standby tug roles
  • Short sea freight
  • Short sea / inland water ferries
  • Offshore supply vessels.

Vessels / roles likely to have a high level of human involvement onboard for the foreseeable future.

  • Large open sea RORO passenger ferries
  • Cruise ships
  • Fishing vessels.

L3 ASV has been working with BMT on a wide range of exploratory projects to see how we can combine our expertise in these areas to produce a world class capability in this rapidly developing market. As well as business development opportunities these projects also include some InnovateUK partially funded R&D work;

  • The Synthetic Imagery training for Machine Vision in Extreme Environments (SIMVEE) project will build upon L3 ASV’s existing, COLREG cognisant, autonomous collision avoidance and path planning capability in its ASView® system. The project will use BMT’s REMBRANDT simulator to train and validate L3 ASV’s vision algorithms to detect and classify objects at sea.
  • The Shared Waterspace Autonomous Navigation by Satellite (SWANS) project will, for the first time, enable beyond line of sight, over the horizon, autonomous behaviour by unmanned surface vessels in areas of congested maritime traffic. The project team will focus on four main objectives including: exploiting satellite sensing technology and enabling the delivery of a higher fidelity world model for vessel operators/supervisors; simulating new scenarios for L3 ASV operations; combining, for the first time, L3 ASV’s autonomous vessel control simulator and BMT’s REMBRANDT ship manoeuvring simulator into a single suite capable of visualising different datasets in 3D and to evaluate new multi-vessel conflict scenarios in the real-world.

If any of the readers have interest in their businesses or sector for either completely unmanned or reduced manning opportunities, please contact the world class team at BMT / L3 ASV to discuss further.

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