Ship owners looking for ways to make savings in these cost-conscious times may be intrigued by the possibilities suggested by the headline “Robot deckhands” in a recent news story.

Human deckhands are, after all, a lot of trouble to employ: they have to be paid, fed, provided with accommodation and are susceptible to that liability regularly blamed for the vast majority of accidents: “human error”.

Robots, on the other hand, do not need as much maintenance and, once the investment has paid for itself, cost a lot less. The only fatigue they might suffer from is of the metal kind. And if they do make mistakes, they can always be reprogrammed.

The robot deckhand in question is 10-foot tall, blue (other colours are presumably available), fitted with a jointed arm that extends 10 feet and comes complete with 15 or more interchangeable hands of varying sizes. There are not many seamen, able-bodied or ordinary, who fit that description.

The robot, one of a series made by a Norwegian company, is designed to work on oil rigs carrying out repeatable, dangerous and heavy-lifting jobs and can manoeuvre a drill bit weighing more than a tonne into place. The one drawback is that it has to be anchored in place to provide better leverage.

The offshore specialist is also developing a three-fingered robotic hand fitted with sensor pressures that allow it to pick up an egg without breaking it, a skill that would make it useful in a ship’s galley.

The company made the news last month when it signed an information-sharing agreement with the US space agency, NASA to discover what it might learn from the Mars rover, Curiosity. The move brings together the worlds of deep-water drilling and planetary exploration where semi-autonomous machines like Curiosity not only gather and transmit data from remote and hostile environments but can, unlike most deckhands, think for themselves.

Other industries such as car-manufacturing and mining have eagerly adopted robotics and automation, with the latter deploying fleets of driverless trucks, trains and loaders. Examples in shipping include the container terminal where boxes are whizzed from ship to waiting truck on driverless straddle-carriers and shipyards where more efficient and cost-effective robot welders and painters are replacing humans.

But ships, while they may have unmanned engine-rooms, computer-controlled cargo systems and increasingly high-tech bridges with the latest in electronic navigation, remain stubbornly manned by humans. Over a million seafarers are still needed to keep the world’s ships moving, a figure that, current crisis aside, is more likely to increase than decrease as the fleet grows.
In the offshore drilling sector, faced like shipping with a shortage of skills that pushes up wages, automation like the robot deckhand promises big savings. It could, a Norwegian oil company has estimated, lead to an initial reduction in the typical rig’s workforce of 50% and a 25% cut in the time taken to complete some tasks.

Some prominent ship owners who have diversified into the drilling-rig sector in recent years are no doubt looking at exploiting these advances in technology and wondering if they could achieve similar figures on their cargo ships.

With the focus, however, currently on making ships more energy-efficient and on reducing emissions to the atmosphere, less attention perhaps is being given to how to reduce crewing costs where, given the availability of seafarers at varying rates of pay, the incentive to find innovative solutions is weakened.

Technology has still enabled manning levels to be reduced (some of the largest containerships have crews of only 13) and research continues into the possibility of fully automated and unmanned ships. While a Japanese project in the 1980s envisaging a manned, container-carrying mothership leading an electronically-controlled flotilla of crewless smaller ships failed to sail off the drawing board, the idea is now being pursued in a number of research institutions where the term “maritime robotics” is not uncommon.

Navies around the world, for example, are developing (and, in some cases, already deploying) a range of “unmanned surface vehicles” – from “seafaring drones” (the maritime version of unmanned aerial surveillance and combat vehicles) up to frigates.

These still require remote control by shore-based human operators but scientists are also working on ships that can navigate themselves. A Norwegian cybernetics student recently created a system which, in theory, allows a vessel to navigate from A to B by itself using electronic map data but would also be able to change course if the data proved incorrect or if other vessels changed course or speed.

Navigating officers who might think they are safe – at least for now – from being replaced by a computer should take heed of what the cyberneticist said. “Computers are much better and more accurate than humans in figuring out how to avoid potential collisions, [even] with many ships moving around the vessel in different directions and at varying speeds.”

The self-navigating ship would need a system of sensors capable of detecting small and large objects in all types of visibility and weather conditions. It would also depend on all ships transmitting accurate information via the Automatic Identification System, something that cannot always be guaranteed.

While research continues into the possibility of unmanned cargo ships, there are some jobs onboard that, because of the safety factor involved, might be better carried out by robots. Sending them into cargo holds or ballast tanks, for example, would eliminate the risks that arise when a human crew member has to perform a task in a confined or hazardous space, a task that has, unfortunately, resulted in a number of deaths.

With navies deploying unmanned vessels and the offshore industry envisaging crewless drilling rigs using satellite co-ordinates to move on to a site and drill a well before moving onto the next job, the seas are increasingly going to be populated by roboships.

Whether these will include cargo ships manned by robot deckhands and navigated by computers may only be a matter of time. For now, however, the industry will have to keep employing those unreliable humans.

Auithor: Andrew Guest who is a freelance journalist.     Source: BIMCO