Ghost Ships on the Starboard Side!

Mary Celeste style ships may become more common place if European researchers and the Rolls Royce engineering group have their way. Much of the tonnage currently afloat on the high seas could be replaced with crewless drone ships.

The main driver of this development is cost. According to Oskar Levander, head of marine innovation at Rolls Royce, crew expenses can range from between 10-30% of operating costs. With no need to facilitate humans for weeks on end the provision of  food, accommodation, galley, sewage treatment system, etc. would no longer be a requirement.

Shore based teams of qualified captains could operate dozens of ships at the same time. According to MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks), an EU sponsored research project, 75% of maritime accidents can be attributed to human error and “a significant proportion of these are attributed to fatigue and attention deficit”. The technology is already here and tested in day to day use. Global communication satellites have the power to provide enough bandwidth to navigate the vessels remotely using feed from onboard radar and cameras. Currently GPS technology is used to automatically navigate ships. Onboard cameras are used to enhance human vision in poor visibility and to spot objects far beyond the range of the human eye.

Mr Levander also claims the threat of piracy could be diminished. The crew with their ransom value are often the most valuable commodity on a ship. Once they are removed from the equation the value of any piracy is diminished. Could pirates hack into the ships computer system and take control? Extra security measures such as flooding the ships with incapacitating gas to fell would be pirates would be possible with no crew.

A ccording to a report in the FT more circumspect voices are heard from the International Chamber of Shipping’s secretary general, Peter Hinchliffe. He concedes that it is becoming harder to find young people to go to sea today, so making the idea of crewless ships interesting. Months away from friends and family year after year does not appeal to a lot of people, coupled with the fact that they can visit faraway places for a reasonable air fare, means the romance of going to sea has possibly lost its lustre.

But he thinks the complexities of a ship mean that you cannot remove the crew. Highly complex collision avoidance rules would have to be rewritten to account for manned and crewless ships operating in the same area, with an implementation period of decades. The amount of bandwidth needed for radar and video feeds alone would be immense so the costs could make it prohibitive. Mr Hinchliffe also argues that extra redundancy and backup systems would be needed in case something fails at sea, raising questions about the promised weight savings.

There are a host of other issues to consider. With no seafarer on board who will lower the life boat and come to the rescue of fellow seamen in distress? Would the unscrupulous boss on land lean on the captain in a nearby office, to steam on by? Will every ship on the seas no matter how small require radar identification systems? This could have hefty cost implications. Also with the possibility of something breaking down on a ship it is hard to visualise a ship without at least one engineer on board.

Ahoy to the future.

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