January 17, 2014

Aye, Robot.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Oskar Levander, Head of Marine Innovation Engineering at Rolls-Royce, said recently that the first unmanned cargo ship would likely be sailing out there within the next decade. “I think it will take more than 10 years before you have all the global rules in place, but you may have a local administration that is prepared to run [remote-controlled ships] sooner,” he said. 

The idea of drone ships- or crewless ships, autonomous ships or roboships, if you prefer- is nothing new. However, many would have us believe that technology has advanced to a stage where these are well possible, and what is really holding back the advent of roboships are international regulations governing seafaring that will take, as Levander says, ‘decades to unravel and renegotiate.’  Levander admits that oceangoing drone ships are a long way away, but feels that we will probably see drone ships sailing on fixed routes in European waters, or those of the US, within the next ten years.

It is not just Rolls Royce that is pushing the idea.  The European Munin project (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks, cleverly named after the globetrotting raven of the Norse God Odin) is a consortium co-funded by the European Commission that recognises the future shortage of seafarers as one of the reasons for why drone ships are desirable, and is examining a ‘pilot to pilot’ autonomous ship. Their brochure also somewhat snidely refers to the usual shibboleths of human error being the cause of whatever percentage of marine accidents (while admitting that fatigue- which nobody has done anything about- is a big factor behind this) and implying that a drone ship will make accidents disappear.  

Elsewhere, media reports say that the UK engineering group, one of the world’s largest suppliers to the commercial shipbuilding industry, “has called for a public debate on the switch from crewed cargo vessels to autonomous ships as part of a wider drive by industry to use advanced automation technology.”

To me, all this roboship business is, at the moment, just smoke propelled by a segment of the industry that wants to make money. Money to fund its ‘research projects,’ which will result in the development of a whole new range of equipment that the IMO will no doubt be pressurised to make mandatory, so more money can be made there. For example, advanced navigational computer systems and sensor systems that will identify even small objects in the vicinity of the ship on the ‘deck’ side and advanced monitoring and surveillance systems in the engine room that will detect machinery issues long before humans can.  No doubt this will be mandated as compulsory on even crewed ships of the future. This is the same old game that has been played over the years; whether it has contributed to increased safety is often a question mark.

Which is not to say that drone ships are undesirable, although I take with a pinch of salt the assumption that they will be cheaper. The saving in crew costs and in lifesaving equipment outlays is likely to be more than somewhat offset by increased maintenance costs and costs for much more expensive temporary staff for repairs or in port. A drone ship will solve the issue of competent seafarer shortage immediately, of course. It will also make large parts of the shipmanagement industry redundant, a cost saving for shipowners. 

Drone ships may be desirable, but they are not, in the near future at least, inevitable. The advantages of having a human eyeball assessing a situation and taking immediate action a hundred times a day is something that will not be easy to replicate with computers and sensors for quite a few years, at least not reliably. And, it is not just maritime regulatory issues that will have to be ‘unravelled and re-negotiated’; the entire insurance and freight markets will have to be overhauled too, for a start, as will large parts of international maritime law and its practice. 

And so will have to be overhauled- and I say this with great glee- the mindset of an industry that scapegoats and criminalises seafarers as a matter of routine. The ‘error of servant’ defence will no longer apply on roboships, because there will be none. What will our shipmanagers, owners, insurers, Flag and Port States and potential ports of refuge do, then, after an accident? Who will they blame? How will they cover their backsides? 

As for drone ships sailing in traffic-dense European or American waters within ten years, well, I wouldn’t bet on that either.  I don’t think countries there are going to buy the idea of unmanned ships zipping up and down their coasts so easily.  


1 comment:

Reid Sprague said...

Dear Manu,

Excellent and timely response to the current flurry of breathless reports.

There is a lot of tech that could be much better used today, without waiting for the robot future - our often abused 24/7 connectivity could be profitably employed, for instance, in moving paperwork off the ship. This is a concrete step that I think would do some real good, and it wouldn't need to wait for the advent of HAL.

Driverless ships may be a common sight one day, but why wait for tomorrow to make shipping safer and saner?

Thanks, as always, for your clear-eyed view!