COLUMN | Everything you have ever lived for is in jeopardy! [Tug Times]

Photo: Sea Machines Robotics
Photo: Sea Machines Robotics

Forgive the dramatic heading, gentle reader, but it is a quote from an American lady who positively shrieks it at the assembled company in an Australian television programme. It is not, as you might have thought, a programme about World War III or the latest Australian submarine purchase, but a cooking competition. Presumably, the woman was paid to spout such nonsense.

Since some of you probably think that I, too, am paid to spout nonsense, let me reassure you that I do not believe anything is that important except my family (and several of them would not qualify), so the fact that this is another column about autonomous shipping should not be misconstrued.

By the time you read this, the good tug Nellie Bly will probably have departed on its circumnavigation of Denmark which, according to the company responsible, is "a milestone moment slated to prove that the world's waterways are primed and ready for autonomous technology". It is also described as a multi-week, 1,000-nautical-mile remotely commanded commercial voyage, although I suspect it will not be towing anything.

"Lower premiums would indicate the insurance industry is convinced autonomous tugs are safer, whereas higher premiums might indicate the opposite."

Sea Machines Robotics is calling it a "machine odyssey" because it is a machine and it is undertaking a long voyage. Let's hope they meet a one-eyed giant who strikes them with thunderbolts and yells "Everything you have ever lived for is in jeopardy," but that seems unlikely. Perhaps there is a greater chance that the crew will be enticed ashore by musical Danish maidens and will not get back aboard by sailing time. You see, there will be a crew, although the tug will be "operating under the authority of commanding officers located in the United States."

And according to the blurb, the voyage will prove to the world that operators can integrate autonomous technology into their vessel operations for a host of technology-driven benefits, from enhanced safety and reliability to leaps in productivity and new on-water capabilities. Sadly, they do not explain exactly how these wonderful new capabilities will actually arise, but I am sure they know what they are talking about. Sea Machines also conveniently ignores the fact that Odysseus lost his entire crew during the original Odyssey, so let's hope there are a few survivors this time, or at least that the crew of Nellie Bly end up in the arms of Danish sirens and are not devoured by angry gods.

The technology seems impressive. Sea Machines' autonomy system uses advanced path-planning, obstacle avoidance replanning, vectored nautical chart data, and dynamic domain perception to control the voyage from start to finish. Even the name of the tug is in honour of an impressive woman – Nellie Bly, who was a journalist and inventor. She famously beat Phileas Fogg by traveling around the world in only 72 days, a record at the time, and had herself committed to a madhouse so she could write about the awful conditions in such institutions. She later married a millionaire and took over his company when he died, and is credited by some with inventing the 55-gallon drum – an object familiar to all of us. She was an interesting lady so if this column is boring you, feel free to look her up instead.

For the current voyage, Sea Machines will place not one but two "safety captains" aboard Nellie Bly, which raises the question of who will really be in charge? I also wondered what would happen in the unlikely event they have a collision or run aground. Who will go to prison?

So I contacted Sea Machines, and received helpful replies from their Vanya Banjac, who explained that, while they fully expect the autonomy system to avoid collisions, the two safety captains "are ultimately responsible for keeping a lookout by sight and hearing." Nonetheless, the voyage is fully commanded by remote captains in their Boston, Massachusetts control room, although Vanya reiterated that the captains on board "are responsible for the safety of the boat and the crew." I am extremely grateful for this willingness to answer my questions.

Sea Machines also assured me that they comply with all the legal requirements for safety equipment, procedures and operations, and Nellie Bly carries all the normal insurance cover. I asked if they were paying more or less than a normal tug would pay for the same insurance, but no reply was forthcoming. I tried to ask a few friends in the insurance and P&I world what they would charge, but so far none have replied. I wish I knew the answer, because lower premiums would indicate the insurance industry is convinced autonomous tugs are safer, whereas higher premiums might indicate the opposite.

Finally, Vanya confirmed that the safety captain on duty has the authority to take over from the remote operator "in any situation the captain deems necessary."

"Let us hope no administration will permit full autonomy, even on a trial basis, before the laws have been changed so we all know exactly where we stand."

Vanya helpfully included what seems to be part of Sea Machines' contract with the user of their kit – "By entering autonomy mode, you acknowledge that a certified operator is in full control of the operation at all times, and located within close physical proximity to the product, who will immediately resume manual control of the helm and propulsion if necessary or appropriate for the safety of the vessel or crew. You are responsible for having an appropriate means to override the product's autonomy mode by way of a backup system in the event necessary."

My initial reaction is that this is hardly autonomous, despite the efforts of the PR people to make it sound like it is. Basically, whenever danger threatens, they revert to manual control and ensure that the captain on board is the one who will go to prison. I am prepared to accept that, for Sea Machines, this is a first step on the road to full autonomy, and they are working within the laws we now have – particularly Colregs, which still insist upon a proper lookout by sight and hearing, for example.

My concern is that we have heard from other developers of autonomous control systems that have claimed that their systems will permit the crew to relax on the way to a towing job, then start work refreshed when the job commences. The obvious drawback with these claims is that, judging by the experience of Sea Machines, the crew on board will have to be poised for action at all times, because it seems they still carry the can. Not exactly a relaxing prospect, in my opinion.

It seems to me we have a long way to go before we can achieve full autonomy, and let us hope no administration will permit it, even on a trial basis, before the laws have been changed so we all know exactly where we stand (and until the people in control centres ashore are made fully responsible for any cock-ups).

Everything you have ever lived for is in jeopardy, but not this month.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World