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The autonomous ship, the ultimate prize

The autonomous ship, the ultimate prize
What are we to think of the news that the Chinese are to undertake serious research into the development of the unmanned, or autonomous, ship? Indeed, we might now see a race between China’s maritime industry and that of Finland, along with Rolls-Royce, to produce the first commercially viable “robot” ship.

Ship operators around the world will doubtless be delighted if these projects progress, although the race will be long and the hurdles which have to be jumped are exceedingly high, with the legal and regulatory obstacles alone of enormous proportions. Still, hope springs eternal.

It may be significant that the Japanese, who went down this road in the 1980s, have yet to declare their interest or enthusiasm for such vessels. Although they proved that remote control of a deep sea vessel was possible, the economics just did not stack up, particularly when it became possible to hire very cheap foreign crews on Japanese controlled ships. Those who might fund this sort of research also may recall the huge sums spent for no useful purpose on other projects like high speed cargo ships, which never proved viable.

There might also be some doubt about what we are talking about here. “Autonomy” so the Imperial Reference Dictionary tells us, refers to “the doctrine that the human will carries its guiding principles within itself”. This, it might be thought, is rather different to something being controlled from afar, like a drone or a driverless train, being overseen by a chap in a control room. If our ship is truly to be autonomous, it would be crammed with sufficient technology to enable it to navigate from Shanghai to the Long Beach pilot station without any human interference. Maybe “remote control” is what we should be properly defining.

Although there is a growing interest in unmanned ships (even the Nautical Institute, which one might think would be opposed to them on principle, is having conferences about them), there remains a large body of healthy scepticism about their practicality. It is difficult to argue that the world’s seaways are sufficiently safe and politically stable to permit ships with nobody on them to be given free reign. Might not there be a few issues like pirates, hijackers and cyber-criminals that will require to be addressed, before the first unmanned vessel takes to the seas?

Matters of reliability in the hostile marine environment, the problems of co-existence with more conventional craft and environmental issues will all have to be confronted. While it may be possible to provide regulatory remedies for all these problems, being able to do so at a reasonable cost to the customer is highly problematical, in an industry which remains grossly unrewarded. The sponsor’s earnest invocation, as she whacks the champagne over the bow for “good fortune to all who sail in her” may need rewording, but that is the least of the problems which the unmanned vessel (in legal terms, defined as a “derelict”) may encounter.

But the researchers will doubtless be given every encouragement by ship operators the world over. Just the remote prospect of getting rid of troublesome human beings aboard their ships will have them urging the boffins on to greater efforts. It is probably quite unlikely that anyone will break ranks to ask whether the work (which shipowners will not be funding) is worthwhile or even necessary. One does not wish to be judgemental, but shipowners down the years have always been suckers for any equipment, system, or regime that purports to make it possible to operate ships with fewer or less skilled seafarers. This, it might be suggested, is the ultimate prize, but may prove elusive.