Battle-lines are being drawn, parameters defined and soundings taken as the relentless march of technology pits proponents of unmanned ships against those who argue seafarers cannot – at least not just yet – be replaced by computers or robots.

With driverless cars promising accident-free roads and pinpoint parking and buzzing drones set to deliver packages to digital shoppers, the idea that those cars and goods might be transported across the oceans on ships that, Mary Celeste-like, are devoid of humans, might seem a logical progression.

The idea is not new: experiments took place in the 1980s but rarely sailed far beyond the drawing board. Since then, however, robotics, computers and communications have advanced at a rapid rate and made the unmanned vessel – roboship or drone – technically possible.

The refresh button was clicked on the idea and accompanying debate last month when the Financial Times reported that aerospace and marine engineering giant, Rolls-Royce, was calling for a “public debate on the switch from crewed cargo vessels to autonomous ships as part of a wider drive by industry to use advanced automation technology”.

While admitting ocean-going “drone ships” may be a few decades away, the head of the company’s marine innovation (engineering) claimed they could be in operation sooner if one region, such as the US or the European Union (EU), were “ready to embrace changes” (see below).

The main obstacle, in Rolls-Royce’s eyes, were “complex, international rules governing seafaring” which, it claimed, could take decades to “unravel and renegotiate” (possibly not by robots).

It was calling for a debate now as the “public’s imagination had been piqued” (i.e. social media sites were full of witticisms, scepticism and even robotism) by recent developments such as the plan by online retailer Amazon to deliver packages by drone and the driverless car project being undertaken by internet search giant, Google.

“It is happening in all other industries, so it is logical it should happen in marine,” the company told the newspaper. Many, of course, in shipping will see the words “logical” and “marine” and assume it was a misprint.

In research centres around the world, no doubt, scientists are tapping and swiping on tablets, tinkering with settings on Wi-Fi-linked electronic navigation and propulsion systems and betting on miniature roboship races in placid swimming pools.

Indeed, somewhere in the EU there are people working on a project called Munin (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks), designed to produce ships that can traverse the oceans while being remotely controlled from thousands of miles away (a situation already familiar to seafarers).

Only when they reach a “pilot point” will humans, who, depending on flag, might or might not be defined legally as seafarers under the Maritime Labour Convention, board to bring them into port (weather and helicopter pilots permitting).

Munin (named after the raven that acted as a kind of feathered spy to the Norse god, Odin) will involve ships, the project’s literature says, in “autonomous operation” and “autonomous problem-solving” (the latter, one hopes, up to dealing with stowaways, pirates and spontaneously-combusting cargoes, not necessarily all at the same time).

Bulk carrier operators will be interested to learn that, while a 30% reduction in speed might result in 50% fuel-savings, the longer voyage would be “onerous on the sailors and a drain on the already limited number of seamen available”. And, Munin tells Odin, crew costs are higher.

So slow-steaming, which also ticks the green box by cutting emissions, only really works if crew costs are minimal or even zero. Seafarers benefit from unmanned ships by enjoying “normal social life on land” if, of course, being unemployed has by then become the norm.

A “robust communications architecture” ensures ship and shore components are “appropriately connected” and not hacked by 11-year-olds using their smartphones. There are also brief references to “legal implications” and “liability issues”, but these presumably are minor matters that can be dealt with later, although some insurers (not to mention harbourmasters) can be a bit fussy.

The EU is facing a serious shortage of “home-grown” seafarers. At the same time as developing unmanned ships, the European Commission is carrying out a survey into career-mapping for seafarers. One seafarer has told the survey: “Stop treating us like imbeciles”, a heart-felt message presumably aimed at everyone ashore, not just Eurocrats. That’s the problem with and for seafarers: everybody else thinks you have to be mad or unemployable anywhere else to work at sea. Seafarers probably have the same thoughts as no-one seems to trust them to do their jobs.

For roboships to ply the oceans, as Rolls-Royce admitted, laws and rules will have to be rewritten, if not junked. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) might also have something to say about unmanned vessels, open register or otherwise. Boycotts might be a challenge if docks and tugs are unmanned as well.

The debate called for by Rolls-Royce is already taking place but it is not public in the sense of it happening in a chamber wider than the industry itself. Who should take part, what the terms are and who gets to vote (probably not seafarers) have yet to be determined.

In the debate the argument may come down to whether it is the presence or absence of seafarers that is the greater liability. Some may have already decided but others remain to be won over.

By the time the debate is over, however, it will probably be too late. Everyone ashore will have 3D printers making what used to be carried thousands of miles by sea.

Author: Andrew Guest, a freelance journalist                             Source: BIMCO