Long gone are the days of sail, grappling hooks, and one shot pistols.
Long gone are the days, fearing names such as Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and Bartholomew Roberts…
By Owen Palmiotti (Coeval, Inc.) Now we fear not individuals, but malicious programs and programmers are creating viruses, malware, and Trojan horses – A new threat to worldwide commerce.
For as long as goods have traveled by sea, there has always been a crew of dedicated seafarers protecting the wares, moving the cargo from point A to point B. Even with a tremendous shift in technology from the days of old, we can see something consistent: a threat to the safety of our seafarers and of the goods they are transporting.
With the maritime industry leaning towards automation, the classic pirate is just a mere fleeting concept, only feared in the history books, or is it?
Oskar Levander, head of innovation for Rolls’s marine unit firmly believes that we are approaching a new shift in the maritime industry: “This is happening. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”
Cyber pirates will replace the historical pirate of the days of old. They will no longer be physically present during a ‘traditional’ pirate boarding, but will virtually hack into a vessel’s bridge automation and take command of a ship just like a video game. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Mr. Levander continues by saying “The individual technologies for drone ships now exist, but it is a matter of bringing them together, overcoming legal hurdles, and testing the remote control vessels at sea. Sensors such as radar, lasers, and computer programs will allow the ships to pilot themselves, with shore-based captains taking over if there is a problem or for complex docking procedures, although the sailors will be on board at first to oversee pilot projects.”
Perhaps this tag-team approach, of skilled mariners controlling the vessel once problems arise or for complicated maneuvers will work. Should these processes be effective together, the world will witness a massive shift in how we transport cargo across the globe. We have seen successes in various industries with automation replacing human efforts. Most goods that we use in our daily lives are available to us through the increased use of automation and other technologies.
The shift in the technology that has improved the safety of air travel is not unlike the revolution in automation that we are likely to see implemented soon in the marine sector. First with under the supervision of ships crews, then slowly by shore-based masters. Airlines are not at the point that they have removed pilots – but they are currently controlled almost exclusively by autopilot.
“…the general guidance given to pilots is, Let the computer do it because it can do a better job than a person.” but “The auto flying system does not fly the airplane. The pilots fly the plane through the automation.”
Modern ships are incorporating more and more automation into the navigation and watchstanding process. Now passage plans are entered into integrated bridge systems. Systems that not only control the rudder as the old Iron Mike once did, but they can also control the engine speed, the use of thrusters, and the rate of turn over the ground – to accurately follow planned waypoints, better than the best of helmsmen.
The systems as they are currently in use, however, do not include collision avoidance systems or the ability to spot dangerous objects in the water – such as drifting containers or icebergs. But, those systems are coming soon.
In Norse mythology, Odin’s Ravens, Huggin & Munin, would fly around gathering information for Odin, reporting its findings in the evenings. Currently, there is a large-scale research project called MUNIN, Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks. The concept of an autonomous ship developed in the project MUNIN shall figuratively act like the raven Munin: independently and safely bringing cargo to its intended destination. The project’s aim to develop technology for an unmanned and autonomous vessel.
There can be many advantages for the use of unmanned vessels: smaller vessels could be used to deliver and distribute goods to meet the demands of our just in time inventoried economy, the vessels would require fewer stores and the issue of fatigue that has plagued the maritime industry would be reduced.
However, when things go badly, the ship could be lost to cyberpiracy or disaster if there is no-one present to override the systems in such events. The training and crewing requirements would change from maintaining a bridge and engine watch – to keeping an automation watch and ensuring that the programming and satellite connection are working as they should be and that everything is going according to plan.
Bridge watch would become a day at the office. Watchstanders like air traffic controllers would control the movements of vessels worldwide from shore-based control centers. Training and certification would need to be adapted from the current standards to using comprehensive computer interfaces to operate the ships. Onboard a small crew would need to be trained in overriding the system and maintaining the skills necessary to take over – to set up a tow in an emergency, to navigate if GPS is lost or if the satellite connection goes out.