There is a lot in the news about the future of shipping including the development of autonomous ships, ocean going vessels operating without a crew. There is a lot of sex in this… what we should call porn in the articles to get everyone excited about the future of these vessels but for me, I am just not turned on.
Anyone who has sailed on a ship or a boat for that matter, will quickly come to conclusions of the viability of these vessels’ success, and its my belief that, it just won’t end well.
I can see the “sexy” part of this, and understand that today’s automation, technology and data communication can indeed make this idea viable in many aspects of vessel operations, especially navigation. More or less this is a reality already. Things have changed since the sextant came about, think about that handheld GPS device you can buy for $150, that will tell you where you are, where your heading and how fast your going, add in a few coordinates and you have your course set. With perhaps less than an hour training on the GPS, you can become a navigator.
Likewise, automating all the machinery from the main engines to the auxiliary equipment is highly possible. Our shipboard reality down below in my view is no longer “standing watch” like what we used to do on steamboats and monitoring their systems, in essence, engineers have become alarm acknowledgers. It is important to note however that how the engineering team acts upon the “alarm” is what is most important, more often than not an “alarm” ultimately means some form of maintenance or repair needs to be done. I have done work on some of the newest passenger ships and have watched the engineers in the control rooms, which may have twenty different screens up, for the most part, these men and women are simply button pushers, silencing alarms and calling on the radio, for the roaming Filipino oiler down below to go check out the problem.
Granted, between sensor technology and PLC development more data than ever, can be captured and this data can control efficient machinery operation, as well as tell us when condition maintenance and repair is required. Working with systems during the early rollout of PLC’s, I realized that that screen is only as good as the engineer that develops the logic, often there was so much “fluff” in the information that showed, which was meaning less or inaccurate. Again, the PLC and its logic is only as good as the developer and his understanding of the system, its relationship with other shipboard systems and the environment the system is operating in (a ship at sea).
So, the PLC(s) controlling the machinery is great. We can check that off. What about the machinery, you know, things that go round and round or up and down? How much has the basic design technology changed on a pump or an engine? This technology has been around for 100 years. How can autonomous technology prevent bearing failures, seals and any component that has fluid in it from leaking, strainers clogging as well as a thousands of other failure modes?
There is simply, no such thing as a maintenance free ship. Sooner rather than later, teams of engineers and maintenance personnel will be required to visit these ships. But wait, we can’t hold the ship up in port, that costs way too much. Do you think we might need a crew on board?
Anyone who has ever experienced Murphy’s Law knows the challenges and I am pretty sure Murphy’s Law exists with or without the presence of man.
Finally, there is another problem with this whole idea of autonomous ships, it’s called the Unforgiving Sea, we can never predict her actions.
Fair winds and following seas
The old sea dog.