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Diverted by drones
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
Ship owners are the ultimate suckers, it seems, when it comes
to a salesman offering equipment that promises to do away
with seafarers. They just cannot resist the pitch that offers
manpower reductions as a result of purchasing some beguiling
bit of kit. Such is their enthusiasm, you would think that they
actually hated the people they employed aboard their ships, or
at the very least regarded them as a necessary evil.
Which, it might be thought, accounts for the persistence of
those feverish technologists, who are striving to design completely
unmanned ships. This represents the ship owners’ dream of
heaven, when the office labelled “crewing department”, which
they regard as the source of so much trouble and strife, can be
Joining various Finnish and other European technology
companies, we have the Chinese, who have announced that they
will be putting serious resources into the design of autonomous
ships and hope to have marketable contenders available in the
medium term . You might think that the wo rld’s most populous
country would be wasting its time in this search for the ultimate in
maritime automation, but it is probably the need to employ some
1,000 empty shipyards that drives the Chinese researchers towards
If mankind can land an unmanned craft on a comet or drive
little vehicles around the surface of Mars while sampling the
terrain and analysing its constituent parts, there is probably no
point in suggesting that unmanned ships are a technical step too
far. But when you consider the problems we have on this earth,
and on its seas, you have to ask whether there are not more
important things for researchers to get their teeth into.
Is automation justified?
There may be safe, relatively calm and short routes, unaffected by
passing storms or furious tides, with minimal traffic and a need for a
simple ferry service that might possibly be able to cope with an
unmanned craft, always supposing that shore side oversight and
controls were fully in place. You might justify this robotic operation
by pointing out that unmanned trains are not that unusual, and that
this ferry would be just a sort of floating train. But trains run on rails
and will usually employ a ticket inspector, and even if there is no
driver aboard, there will be some high-priced chaps stationed in a
control room to keep them safe.
But most sea routes are not safe, calm or short and depend upon
experienced seafarers to keep them from disaster in a dynamic,
dangerous, corrosive, unpredictable and variable environment. We all
know that for boring, mechanical, repetitive tasks a machine can
probably undertake the work more efficiently than a human. But
when the tasks in hand are infinitely more complex and the presence
of the unexpected never absent, you would elect to have an
experienced, competent human, rather than any inanimate machine.
The task at hand
It is a massive task these researchers and designers of
autonomous craft are setting themselves and it is probably
doubtful if even the most seafarer-hating ship-owner will be able to
afford the product of their labours. If the users of ships today
(manned by skeleton crews of cheap seafarers) are unprepared to
pay a reasonable rate for the carriage of their cargo, why does
anyone think that they will pay a break-even freight rate for a
maritime drone? Knowing shippers, they will be howling for a slice
of the supposed savings and even cheaper rates.
And let’s face it, the technology may be the least of their
problems. You wouldn’t want your robotic ship to be captured by
pirates, who happened to see it speeding past and quickly boarded.
And the fact is, unless the present law is changed (which will take
decades of debate) the thieving pirates may have done nothing
illegal in their heist, as the ship with nobody aboard her will be
classified as a “derelict” – available to any bold boarder. Why
would they demand a ransom when a perfectly legal salvage award
can reward their piratical labours?
The affect of unmanned vessels on insurance
Nobody, as far as I have ascertained, has attempted to gauge the
reaction of insurers to the voyage of a ship with no live crew
member aboard her. Perhaps there will be some minimal interest
in the P&I world at the possible ending of crew negligence or
injury claims, but the risk assessors will soon be compiling
enormous lists of reasons why premiums should be sky high.
None of these obstacles will dissuade the researchers from their
endeavours, as long as their employers continue to fund them .
They have probably established, by “m arket research”, that ship
owners were gagging for such a product, although they didn’t go
so far as to suggest the cost of such a ship. They have co me up
with all sorts of dubious “social” reasons for the research, such as
the reluctance of 21st century people to make their living at sea,
and how much better it will be when people “drive” ships from
comfortable control rooms ashore.
But instead of these pointless and almost certainly doomed
labours, how much better it would be if clever designers and seafarers,
along with rather more advanced ship owne rs, could bend their
massive brains to the problem of making seafaring acceptable,
enjoyable, decent, well-paid and fun. We are human beings and we
shouldn’t be driven by drones to make ourselves redundant.
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