The unmanned ship - a hog or in the fog?

There is nothing like being inspired by other industries. For years the shipping industry has looked at the airline industry when it comes to bridge resource management and leadership. And we have looked at the oil and gas industry when it comes to safety. Yes they are in some ways far ahead of us but also operating under very different conditions - so why bother look outside our own comfort zone?

Because it makes a difference. In our own industry you tend not to spot the obvious problems and possibilities. You just do more of the same.

But when you think at it - how innovative have our industry actually been? Well, our purpose is to transport cargo or passengers over either longer distances at a very low ton/mile cost, or over shorter distances where the local geography limits land transportation. So our industry has generally focused on doing this cheaper by making bigger vessels with room for more cargo - or a little faster by making the shorter transits less tiresome for people sitting in their cars waiting to get to the other side. We saw the creation of ”The Great Eastern” in 1859 by Brunel the worlds first (almost) iron-only ships and the largest for more than 40 years. We had the transformation from sail to first steam - and later diesel, finally cemented by the ”Selandia” in 1912, the first diesel powered ship. Since that, little has really happened. Yes we have seen few electronic components here and there, control systems, radars, AIS, ECDIS, waste heat recovery, scrubbers, better living conditions onboard for all etc. All very fine but in general there is not must difference from a modern vessel to the ”Selandia”. Lately, which smells a little of innovation, is the introduction of LNG powered vessels or battery propulsion (especially for short transit ferries). But still not quantum leaps.

The Great Eastern

The Great Eastern

Well, as mentioned inspiration from other industries can be healthy. And looking at something unbiased from the outside makes you see the obvious, just like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersens ”The Emperor’s new Clothes”. Well, it is not a big scam I am looking at - just an observation and something to think of. Of profession I am myself a deck officer - and my perception for this area has also been blineded - at least until recently, namely the unmanned ship.

What’s about the unmanned ship? Trials have been made by Japanese companies in the early 80’s but they were shelved again, because they were unreliable. But in the recent years the theme has surfaced again in various articles, and you can see Rolls-Royce and other companies are brewing on something?

Should this be shelved again or are they really having something up the sleeve? I don’t know their projects in detail, but it is starting to get interesting. And maybe something we should start opening our eyes. The problem - and this is where our conservatism kicks in - and our industry blindnessis the we say, this is impossible because of safety, and maintenance, and unreliable systems, labor is still very cheap (relative to the cost of a ship). Yes - you are all right, but maybe we should not go for the fully unmanned ships but dare to take a few steps in this direction.

And here is the breaking news, the Danish Directorate for Roads project that in 2075 all cars and trucks are fully automatic

This is very my recent inspiration comes in. Why don’t we look at the automotive industry. Yes it’s right: Unmanned cars and trucks. They are coming. If you are sitting in your new Tesla every morning you are already a few steps up the ladder of automation. And here is the breaking news, the Danish Directorate for Roads project that in 2075 all cars and trucks are fully automatic, yes they actually have a projection for this! Any consideration for this area in shipping yet by the Danish Maritime Administration - not yet I believe!

Driverless car

Driverless car

The trucking industry is now operating with the platooning concept. Imagine 4 trucks in a platoon, the driver only sitting in the first truck, the other trucks just have chauffeurs sitting on ”stand-by”. This is reality today, and in April 2016 truck manufacturers hold the ”Platooning Challenge 2016” where trucks form Volvo, MAN etc. drive in platoons from their home countries to meet up in Rotterdam. The future is here! Platooning saves energy (the trucks can drive closer to each other), time (in principle the driver in the other trucks can rest - or in the end no drivers at all) and finally you can use capacity on the roads much better with automation.

So what’s about shipping? I would say let us be inspired form a new industry which is innovating and trying to take some leaps. Needless to say - I find it far more challenging to create automation for a vehicle supposed to drive in cities with bicycles, children and drunkards as other traffic elements mingling with the traffic of your fully automated cars and vehicles. Ships are in this respect operating in a far more predictable environment, with possibilities to receive all kinds of environmental information to your systems, data from other vessels in the vicinity, and radars to catch the rest.

Maybe we should not distract the discussion and talk about the fully unmanned ship (yet) - suggest we take it one step of a time, where we accept that the humans can step further and further back, until they are finally off the ships in 2075.

Read more:

Rolls-Royce Marine
Norway putting their bets on unmanned vessels
Autonumus Ship Symposium 2016
Article on self-driving cars - and how this has led to incidents in Teslas
Førerløse busser i Himmerland

Mikkel Brønnum Hansen, January 26th 2016