COLUMN: Unmanned ships – because we can… [Grey Power]

Photo: Wikimedia/Bernhard Fuchs
Photo: Wikimedia/Bernhard Fuchs

In 2019, it is confidently announced, the giant Japanese shipping company NYK will despatch one of its ships across the Pacific under “remote control”. This exciting development undertaken with various specialist partners will, some say, smooth the path to true “autonomy”, although the ship is expected to have a crew on board, to monitor the machinery and to intervene if something goes wrong. It will also make the voyage legal.

I suppose this can be counted as progress, because some of us recall the voyage of a “remote controlled” 40,000DW Japanese bulk carrier across the same bit of ocean, some thirty years ago. The first voyage saw the bulker, with no crew embarked, being controlled by an accompanying ship with all the scientists aboard, so the 2019 sailing will presumably be a much more long distance affair, illustrating the advances in communications, reliability, electronics and telemetry.

“Affordable ships, rather than vessels stuffed full of advanced equipment”

Nobody really doubts the ability of ingenious people to provide the technology which will enable ships to be operated without on-board human intervention. If we can control devices trundling around on Mars, it is argued, anything on the surface of the earth (or the sea) ought to be child’s play. But equally it might be asked, just because we can do something, must we do it?

The 1980s research in Japan was designed to address the fact that native Japanese really did not wish to go to sea and if a fleet of unmanned ships could be controlled from a single accompanying vessel, that difficulty would be largely solved. The trans-Pacific voyage worked, but was not progressed any further, as the Japanese government legislated to permit cheaper foreign seafarers to sail in their ships, this solving the manning problem in a practical and pragmatic fashion. Owners also made it clear that their preference would be for simple, conventional and above all affordable ships, rather than vessels stuffed full of advanced equipment, retailing at an enormous cost. Does this argument resonate today?

Autonomous ships are currently very topical, with manufacturers like Rolls-Royce and others anxious to sell the idea to the shipping industry. Scarcely a maritime industry symposium will take place without one or more eager speakers on the subject. Up in Scandinavia there are experiments already taking place with remote control systems and various manufacturers, aided by their friends in the classification societies, are getting very excited about future prospects.

Realists point to the regulatory and liability obstacles that will have to be surmounted before unmanned ships will be permitted in service, although the International Maritime Organisation has been persuaded to examine these hurdles. In fact there are few maritime conventions that will not require some sort of amendment to permit such ships to become operational. There is also no shortage of conservative people who underline the potential difficulties, from defending such ships from pirates, to the ability to intervene in an emergency, or even a simple breakdown. The potential navigational problems with the interaction between manned and unmanned craft have also been emphasised.

But like driverless cars and trucks, unmanned ships are becoming something of an article of faith for their enthusiastic proponents. Bold statements to the effect that safety is improved with the human being out of the way are rarely challenged in any one of the modes of transport now being explored by the autonomy enthusiasts. Questions about the reliability of ship machinery in the violent and corrosive maritime world are dismissed as “negative”, even though there seem few practical solutions to the breakdown of an unmanned ship far from any land. Professional salvors are probably becoming increasingly interested.

It is said that all things are possible, if reliability is improved and duplication of ships’ systems enable continued operation in the event that something breaks down. Ships’ engineers, a breed of people who have long experience in putting things right when they go wrong and brought up with practice rather than theory, tend to be sceptical about the ability to make equipment and systems more reliable without moving into the realms of the unaffordable. And this, perhaps is the real obstacle that must be confronted if these autonomous ships are ever to move from the realms of the scientist and researcher into practical production.

Too sophisticated for their own good

Back a ship operator into a corner and seek an opinion on the likelihood of autonomy happening any time soon and watch the reaction. Polite interest, if you are lucky. Profound scepticism is a more realistic view, with such a step into the unknown only likely at enormous expense. History tends to inform us that those “ships of the future” that have been built, in the past, even with the subsidy of governments, prove too complex for those charged with their operation and far too expensive for a commercial owner ever to afford.

None of which is likely to deter those who are making an astonishing amount of noise and radiating enthusiasm for what they regard as the future, into which a reluctant industry must be dragged, if necessary, kicking and screaming. Downsides of this noise might include the increased reluctance of potential seagoing recruits, who might be put off taking up a maritime career on the grounds of likely redundancy, when the robots take over their jobs.

It could also be argued that ships are already too sophisticated for their own good and that simplicity, economy and reliability in a form that existing crews can operate easily, ought to be a more realistic priority, before too much money and effort is spent in making human beings aboard ship redundant.

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.