COLUMN | A perfect storm of innovation [Grey Power]

Photo: Rolls-Royce

They are all so positive and upbeat about the amazing technology they are introducing to a somewhat bewildered industry that it seems almost treasonable to express the slightest doubts. But perhaps negativity is a genetic trait, or brought about by the environment in one’s formative years.

I can just about recall the training officer in my army cadet corps at school crisply issuing orders.

“We will attack and destroy the enemy and occupy their ground – any questions?”

It had to be Cadet Grey who raised his hand.

“Sir, what happens if we don’t destroy them?”

I never got a proper answer, just abuse for my negative attitude.

When I read about a huge ship that is being designed to operate with no engineers, seamen, or even navigators, accompanied by a fulsome explanation of all the artificial intelligence, machinery diagnosis solutions, surveillance devices, and condition monitoring gear that will be crammed into it, I really would like to believe. Just last week, some brilliant Indian technologists, operating with a surprisingly modest budget, managed to land a spaceship on one of the lunar poles. A bulk carrier on even the longest voyage will be a lot nearer to its controlling machinery. You would think that it would not be without the wit of earthbound maritime expertise to devise an automated ship, as has now been claimed, by Hyundai’s engineers.

But perhaps all the remaining problems about fully automated ships will be speedily resolved. Enough people, with more positive mindsets than mine, have confidently asserted that such a scenario, with unmanned merchant ships criss-crossing the world’s oceans, is not merely achievable but inevitable, with just a few more technical and legal hurdles to leap.

“Would it really be worth shifting the ‘control’ of ships to some remote management station?”

It is not just me who voices doubts about such developments. Quite recently, it was a chief engineer who was commenting upon the fact that in the most modern ships he had recently sailed in, just as many things broke, or required constant attention, as had been the case in elderly tonnage, where such problems could be anticipated. He conceded that in some respects, machinery reliability was improving, but there was so much control equipment, electronics, and sophisticated monitoring equipment installed that seemed to be in “a permanent state of alarm.”

There was a lack of robust-ness in so much of the equipment that probably was brilliant in a static landside installation, but frankly was unhappy in the mobile, vibrating, hostile environment of a ship at sea.

There was something that required attention all the time and this very experienced ship engineer officer really did not understand how the ambitions of those hoping to automate everything could be achieved without massive expenditure. Would it really be worth shifting the “control” of ships to some remote management station, unless the reliability of the plant they were controlling and monitoring could be hugely improved? Could anyone afford such a leap into the unknown?

“All these dramatic changes will be taking place at the same time as the industry is coming to grips with a massive increase in the degree of environmental supervision and regulation.”

He was a highly experienced engineer, thinking primarily about technology, but it is also worth considering the more rudimentary things that cause ships at sea to come to a premature stop. Storms, extreme weather, the rudder falling off; things like a marine emergency of multiple problems, collisions or fires.

Things like corrosion, with a ship floating in a salt sea and surrounded by a salty atmosphere, which really does require human intervention of the most basic kind to keep everything from rusting up. And in the engine room, think about the build-up of oil and grease, which cannot just be ignored in any situation, with large machinery requiring lubricating equipment to keep it healthy. Maybe the operators can do away with engineers; they can hardly pension off the wipers who will keep it all clean and fire-resistant.

It is also worth considering that all these dramatic changes will be taking place at the same time as the industry is coming to grips with a massive increase in the degree of environmental supervision and regulation. Similarly, this “perfect storm” of new technology will be encompassing the introduction of a whole range of new fuels, of varying degrees of hazard. More and better engineers, rather than more automation, might seem to be indicated in such circumstances.

Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be an automated 180,000DWT bulker setting off on a long voyage, her operators brimming with confidence at their purchase and basking in the admiration of their peers at their bold investment. But what, asks the pessimist, if it doesn’t work?

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.