October 30, 2011

2041: An Ocean Odyssey

Japan, the summer of 2041. The 28000 TEU containership 'UOV 162' has, after departure from Yokohama, just sailed out of Tokyo Bay. Its massive skysail has been already deployed high above the vessel; this, along with solar panels arrayed all over the superstructure- including the portable bank above the topmost tier of containers along the ship's length- will be the source of power for the UOV as it makes its way to San Francisco, her destination.

The ship slows down as a speedboat comes alongside. One by one, a dozen men employed by Yokohama port- navigators, engineers and deckhands- disembark. On the bridge, the pilot throws a switch, handing over control of the vessel to the owner's outsourced 'Control Room' in Mysore, India. He then makes his way to the pilot ladder and the speedboat, closing the only open watertight door leading into the accommodation as he does so.

There is now not a single human being aboard the 'UOV 162'. She will sail unmanned across the Pacific.  

Meanwhile, thousands of away in Mysore, CR Operators (CROs) 1 and 2 take control of the vessel.  Weather routeing services are automatically fed into their systems; passage planning is dynamic and automatic. Speed is slowly increased and the autopilot set. The pilot ladder is winched up remotely.  Additional pumps and machinery essential for safe manoeuvring are switched off.  In addition, for security, a voltage high enough to incapacitate a 120 kg human is fed to the superstructure and hull once the speedboat is well clear- SOP against gangs of pirates that have infested the oceans for more than half a century. 

The CROs will monitor the ship's performance throughout her passage- data will be fed continuously into their computers from the UOVs Bridge and the engine room. High-resolution cameras mounted high on the vessel's masts, the forecastle, poop and the bridge front will give the CROs a 360-degree visual all around the ship at all times. Radar and ECDIS screens will be duplicated at- and controlled by- the CR. Navigational equipment will be similarly operated. So will pretty much everything else. Anchors can be let go in emergency (and picked up too), sensors and CCTV cameras will detect fires. Carbon dioxide will be released throughout the entire vessel, including the accommodation, in such an emergency- something that was not safe to do in the days when seamen sailed the seas. 

Of course, the 'UOV 162' carries no Life Saving Equipment and hardly any portable fire fighting equipment. She carries no lifeboats or liferafts; most of the SOLAS regulations are now redundant anyway. No humans, so no safety of life necessary.

 The UOV 162 will sail for almost two weeks under the CRO's command. At the end of her voyage, another speedboat will come alongside, about ten miles before the San Francisco channel starts- carrying berthing men, engineers and a pilot. They will board, lower the skysail and take the UOV alongside using stored power and tugs. In port, company engineers will run diagnostics checks or conduct repairs. Then it will be time, soon after cargo operations complete, for the UOV to make its way back to Tokyo Bay.  

The UOV 162 has been making this round trip once a month for the last twenty years. In fact, by the year 2030 there were hardly any manned commercial ships left on the high seas- the few that existed were phased out in pretty quick time. Amongst the few exceptions were ships plying the rapidly melting Arctic, where constant manoeuvring was sometimes necessary in ice. But those seamen would soon go too; like the wildlife there, they were living on borrowed time.

The unmanned revolution took a little time to take off, but it accelerated rapidly after around 2015. To be fair, very small UOV (Unmanned Ocean Vessels) existed before then, operated by companies such as US based SolarSailor. Using a prototype that used wind and solar power, they could stay at sea for days, using finite amounts of on-board stored fossil fuel or solar generated electric power for propulsion.  However, it was only around 2015 that technology advanced far enough to allow small oceangoing vessels to stay indefinitely at sea- thanks to advances in wind propulsion that allowed that to become the main source of power. Propeller regeneration renewable-electricity was another source.  Photovoltaic cells could take care of many needs too, and massive banks of battery packs started being used to store reserve power.  Many were located low down on the UOVs, a new form of permanent ballast.  

The simultaneous growth in automation systems prompted the launch of the first UOV- UOV 1- in 2022, when a Japanese shipowner decided that a ship that burnt no fossil fuels and had no crew took care of his two biggest heads under expenses- fuel and crew costs. The amendment of the Loadline Convention in 2024- that now allowed s UOVs to be loaded deeper than manned vessels since they did not have to bother about safety of life at sea- made UOVs even more attractive for shipowners. In any case, the numbers of qualified, experienced and competent officers and crew had deteriorated to a point where insurance premia was going through the roof- if one could not get good crew, then maybe eliminating them altogether was the best alternative. 

There was a stampede of UOV ordering in the 30's, led by long haul bulk carriers, many of them owned by interested companies in China and Brazil. Tankers and container ships were the next to follow. The global consortium of tug and salvage companies that was formed in 2027 was the beginning of the end of the last oceangoing manned vessels - owners could now count on a tug being available reasonably quickly to tow a disabled UOV at sea in the unlikely event of a complete breakdown of machinery. Not just close to the coast- the consortium had placed salvage tugs strategically at sea every few thousand miles along ocean trade routes. Rates for hire were published monthly.

By the year 2040, just before the 'UOV 162' sailed out from Yokohama, more than 90 percent of the commercial ocean going fleet in the world was made up of unmanned vessels that burnt little or no fossil fuel. That they gave off no emissions made them much more palatable to a large part of the world that had mandated strict emission norms by the 2020's. In coastal trades, where mainly domestic tonnage was employed, control and regulation was much easier anyway.

In Mysore, the two CRO's - each a holder of a joint Deck/Engine Level 1 Certificate of Competency- heave sighs of relief as the UOV 162 clears the Japanese fishing fleet and heads out to the open Pacific. They normally monitor five open-sea UOVs during their four hour watch simultaneously, calling on additional CROs housed in the same complex if any UOV runs into bad weather, heavy traffic, reaches port- or in any emergency. They will then get eight hours off. A team of twenty CROs works in the Mysore Centre; they handle, in all, 15 UOVs at any point of time. 

 At the turn of the last century, when crew still sailed the oceans, eighteen officers would fill the slots on just two or three ships. Then the industry discovered, very quickly, that while ships were indispensable to global trade, seamen were not.

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