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The future of transport and logistics: unmanned ships in our oceans and harbours


You know about driverless cars. The technology is well into advanced testing stages, and most technology gurus predict that they will be a feature of life, if not in the next ten years, then certainly before the end of the century. But what about crewless ships? We don’t hear much about them, but designers are working on the principle, and 2016 saw the launch of the US Navy’s first unmanned ship, the 132 foot Sea Hunter, which is expected to enter service in 2018.

What Are the Benefits of Unmanned Ships?

The first and most immediate benefit is in costs. A large part of the capital cost of any vessel is expended on the living quarters of the crew. By removing cabins, galleys, restrooms, and health facilities, there is massive saving to be made in the construction costs of the ships.

Running costs are also reduced. Without the weight of the living quarters the efficiency of fuel is greatly improved in relation to the tonnage carried. Of course, the direct costs of maintaining a crew, in wages, food, heating/air conditioning, and waste disposal are all removed.

The other argument that is made for unmanned ships is that they will be safer. As on the roads, most accidents are the result of human error, due to tiredness, loss of concentration, or bad judgment. These errors will be eliminated by automation.

Full automation will involve ships communicating with each other as well as with their land-based headquarters. This will bring much greater efficiency in the use of shipping lanes and harbor facilities.

Unmanned ships may also be a part of the answer to piracy. The main threat that pirates exploit is to the safety of the crew, and taking away that component will greatly reduce their power.

But Will They Really Be Safe?

The great fear about unmanned ships, as for driverless cars, is psychological resistance to handing over complete control. It will be a long time before passenger-carrying vessels will be accepted without a captain in real command. If the protocols allow for a land-based operative to assume remote control, the element of human error again creeps in.

While pundits may be in general agreement that risks would be greatly reduced if all ships were unmanned, there will be a prolonged period when both manned and unmanned vessels are sharing the seaways and harbors, and the protocols for that transition period will be complicated.

There will always be leisure boats on the sea, by definition controlled by people. Users of smaller boats may well be anxious about the future interaction with larger unmanned ships, including what provision there may be for unmanned ships to assist other vessels in distress.

When Will the Future Arrive?

The progress towards driverless cars is proceeding fast, but shipping faces a number of extra obstacles.

The longevity of ships (compared to that of cars) means that any transition is going to take a long time. Some of the vessels for sale on NautiSNP have seen decades of service and are good for decades to come. While it may prove realistic to retrofit older vessels with the new technologies, it is unlikely that it will prove an economic prospect in most cases.

Whereas cars can communicate using land-based systems such as 4G, there is no such network available for large-scale data transfer in mid-ocean. Unlike road traffic, shipping will require international standards for data transfer. The units that are used in different shipping areas will need to be reconciled by international agreements. These things take time.

As with cars, issues relating to responsibility will have to be agreed by all stakeholders. Without a captain on board, who will hold the ultimate responsibility for something that goes wrong? There are very complex legal issues that need to be resolved between owners, software developers, and national and international authorities.

There are further technological challenges. While a car has a complex but relatively fixed environment to survey, a ship has other challenges in surveying its surroundings on the high seas. For example, the unmanned ship will need to identify the location of smaller vessels in its vicinity when both are moving unpredictably in three dimensions in storm conditions.

The March of Progress

Although it may take some time, the gradual extension of the production and use of unmanned ships is very likely to be a mark of the future. Technological problems will undoubtedly be overcome, and human psychology has a boundless capacity to adapt to ideas that once seemed impossible.

About the author

Emily Hopkins is a transport/shipping coordinator. A tomboy at heart, and a total techie geek, Emily writes about how technology is changing the shipping industry