Ship Automation Without Consultation – The Problem With Robot Ships

autonomous unmanned ship
A DARPA sponsored highly autonomous unmanned ship.

By Capt. George H Livingstone,

“Promise Everything, Deliver Nothing” Napoleon Bonaparte

There is an ongoing “full court press” regarding the subject of automation in marine transportation.  In the last year gCaptain alone has seen many articles on the subject; Rolls-Royce’s automated ships, automated tug boats, etc.  Recently there have seen several more, Rolls-Royce to Open Remote Controlled and Autonomous Shipping Center in Finlandand “The World’s First Zero-Emission, Full Automated Container Ship”, ”Ships without Sailors? It can’t happen soon enough”.  A plethora of marine transportation automation articles are being published internationally.  It’s too good to pass up, they’re futuristic, high tech, glamorous and pressing all the hot buttons.

Adam Minter of Bloomberg View says in the above cited article, ships without sailors, “If all goes as planned, it’s actually the future of shipping” “transforming one of the world’s oldest and most conservative industries.”  Really?  I think Napoleon made similar remarks before Waterloo.  Mariners are skeptical of saying things like If all goes as planned, etc.  Mr. Minty goes on to mention many negatives of manned ships; like ship crew costs account for 44% of total coast of a ship.  That manned ship’s “Bridge superstructures” typically require heavy ballasting to make sure the ship is balanced…Okay, stop!  Heavy Ballasting required because of Bridge Structures? Better go online and look up basic Naval Architecture.  Average crew costs 44% of total ship operating costs? ‘Balder Dash’, nonsense.  

But I digress, kudo’s should be given to Kongsberg and Yara (a Norwegian fertilizer manufacturer) for announcing a partnership to build the world’s first fully autonomous cargo container ship. The first zero emission electric, automated ship.  I’m just a mariner but why can’t we make the world’s first zero emission electric manned ship?  The referred to ship goes into operation by 2020 and “will replace 40,000 shipments a year that had once been carried by polluting diesel trucks”.  Nice but I’m not sure that the international trucking industry, which is much closer to full automation of vehicles (at much, lower per unit cost), is going to just roll over and let maritime shipping take the money and run.  A fully automated 18 wheel truck just successfully made a trip from coast to coast in the United States.

But I digress, the fascinating aspect of the international discussion on automation in marine transportation is the seeming disregard for the professionals who know most about the subject, the mariners.  I guess we are considered so outdated and conservative that our opinions and thoughts don’t matter.  The business innovators and disruptors apparently don’t care what maritime professionals think or how the industry will be affected by automation.  Change is coming, good or bad or ugly and knowledge of marine transportation is not needed to affect that change, so they say.

The reality is most professional mariners would agree automation is coming and there will be a day when unmanned vessels travel the oceans.  There will also, however, most certainly be a transition period likely for a significant amount of time.  A time when international law and treaties will have to be completely reviewed and rewritten.  A time when the oceans will see a mix of automated and manned ships.  A time when employment in the poorest countries will be considered and debated.  

For example, presently in international marine transportation, some of the world’s poorest countries supply a significant portion of the world’s professional mariners providing much needed income for the demographic in question.  If the average crew cost of a bulk carrier worldwide is less than 10% of total operating costs and it costs 3X as much to build an automated ship as a manned ship along with very high tech, expensive shore-side operation centers, which is the better choice?  It’s not an unimportant consideration, the social justice aspect. 

As long as those entities and countries pushing for automation in marine transportation keep themselves isolated through a pure PR strategy.  As long as they are unwilling to engage in broad and transparent conversations with those who know marine transportation, said entities will find one self-created road block after another.  I’m not suggesting automation doesn’t arrive, it will.  It’s a question of the transition, which will make or break many of those presently engaged in ‘automation without consultation’.