Tuesday, August 26, 2014


File:Supertanker AbQaiq.jpg
Photo Credit: U.S.Navy


American Admiralty Books Safety & Privacy Policies   EU VISITORS WARNING POSSIBLE COOKIES AHEAD

 Now referred to as the "autonomous ship" the concept is back in the discussion mode among ship management and insurance groups. The concept is being driven by the evolution of navigation and ship control technology. Today fully manned ships are having more and more functions managed by on board computers. Some on board computer functions can send and receive data from shore based managers and even be programed or operated from ashore. Other labor saving developments such as more durable paint, self service galleys, unmanned engine rooms have so reduced crew size that the operating crew no longer offers much in the way of physical security for large ships. Pirates frequently get aboard unnoticed until it is too late. Ships that once required crews of 35 merchant mariners to operate now routinely operate with crews of 12 with only 4 on watch at any given time.  

PD: Bridge of the OLYMPIC, SISTER SHIP OF TITANIC Fully manual analogue navigation bridge

Reports of various conferences on the subject in various maritime trade journals that we monitor paint a picture of a seemingly inevitable evolution towards the unmanned "autonomous" ship. The evolution begins with a change in the nature of mariner duties from operating to monitoring/operating manual back ups in an emergency. Given present international standards of watch keeping we don't see a reduction beyond a 4 man 3 watch system before the end of this century despite assurances that the necessary technology for the "autonomous" or "drone" large commercial cargo carrier is already available. The apparent consensus of opinion on the continuing evolution towards the "autonomous unmanned ship appears to go something like this:

Photo: U.S. Navy : The mixed digital/ analog/automated/manual bridge

  In the short term, autonomous ships won’t necessarily be unmanned. As more sensors are added to ships, then algorithms will be introduced to learn from that data and make decisions. Actuators will then be linked to those sensors, creating autonomous ships.

In the same way that almost all the technology needed for a self-driving car is already in high-end cars today, commercial vessels will have the capability for autonomy well before they become unmanned. So the evolution will naturally be automation-autonomous-unmanned,”  Roger Adamson, CEO of Futurenautics speaking at Posidonia exhibition

 We don't disagree with the basic concept of the evolution of the unmanned commercial ship, but we don't think unmanned will happen in this century despite the ready availability of the technology. The reasons we don't see it happening are in the realm of political, and here we don't just mean organized maritime labor objections, but a whole variety of political issues from environmental protection to soverignity protection. Additionally insurance consideration, and other loss control considerations will keep the ships manned at least well into the 22nd century. 

 A top priority of commercial shipping hasn't been the rapid development of oil spill mitigation technology. Generally its is still pretty manpower intensive and that includes the "first aid" type measures that ship's crews are expected to take. While professional maritime environmental mitigation companies may have an interest in lowering their paid manpower requirements ships owners have little incentive to automate detection and mitigation equipment for on board use. Environmental regulators are unlikely to smile upon simply abandoning the idea of crew administered first response. We are into the second decade of the 21st century and piracy and maritime terrorism, as well as other crimes directed at ships are rampant. The present modus operandi for piracy seems to be pretty low tech using smaller, faster, boats they come along side and board using old fashioned grappling hooks. It is highly doubtful that by the end of this century commercial large cargo ships will be able to match "speed boat" speeds and operate economically. If you can't out run the maritime criminals a defenseless unmanned cargo barge is a free gift to the pirates. The idea of operating vessels with some sort of automated system capable of defending against pirates will not be readily accepted by world Coast Guard and naval authorities who will often have to board such vessel in trouble and doubt that the "friend/foe distinguishing device in such a system will be sufficiently discriminatory. While fire detection/suppression systems and dewatering pumps can be automated today. Its going to be a long time before they can innovate like a crew trained in damage control.

 I once served on a fairly well automated vessel that was rammed by a freighter with a steering malfunction in port. The automated dewatering pumps immediately kicked in but the infilling water was coming in faster than the pumps could keep up. The ship was starting to list  and continued progressive flooding could have capsized her. The ship would have sunk at the dock but for the action of the Chief Engineer who bravely entered the worse flooding compartment and stuffed a mattress in the hole.Once the pumps started to get ahead of the flooding sources the crew brought more mattresses and shoring to bear on the problem. Eventually the local fire service showed up but seemed clueless other than to offer us some of their portable pumps. Holes stuffed and properly shored the ship made it to the ship yard under her own power later that afternoon. Somebody's insurance syndicate was saved a constructive total loss. These types of crew intervention damage control save many more ships than the suits who are discussing this technological revolution in shipping with its attendant disemployment of human crews realize. But their insurance companies know. Certainly we anticipate changes in crew roles , functions and training as the evolution towards the automated ship progresses. But we don't see is much progress in reducing crew size past the already inadequate manning levels of today. As usual in maritime history the ship owners are on one side and the seamen are on the other. But this time its not just crews striking the cautionary notes to slow the speed of the extinction of the merchant mariner. Insurance, regulators, the general public and every manner of green activists share the seaman's viewpoint. When will we eliminate piracy and marine terrorism? How will the new technologies achieve present levels of safety in fire detection/suppression, and damage control. How will first response pollution mitigation measures be deployed?  How will cargo theft and pilferage be controlled? How much performance data will insurance syndicates require before allowing unmanned automated ships to be insured at or bellow manned rates? 

 Yeah the technology already exists to send drone cargo ships across the ocean, but keeping them safe is another issue. Moreover determining how safe is safe enough will be a political decision involving far more parties at interest than just the ship owners. Here at AAB we don't see any incentive to close down the maritime academy officer schools or Union rating schools. The fact is, there is now a worldwide shortage of seamen and more automation isn't the cure, its just inevitable; but its main function will be enhancing the performance of the crew..   

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