Robot Ships Are Coming

While I’m on the topic of autonomous vehicles that aren’t quadcopters, the February issue of IEEE Soectrum has several articles about the future of ships. As I have pointed out before, oceangoing vessels are a very sensible target for autonomous and remote operation, certainly at least as sensible as trying to automate ground and air traffic in crowded cities.

In the issue, Oskar Levander of Rolls Royce writes about “Autonomous ships on the high seas, which are definitely coming. He reports on a collaboration with Finnish institutions to develop these robotic chips.

Unlike some of the more crazed Silicon Valley folks, these marine engineers are serious grown ups. It is very interesting and thought provoking to read these analyses.

There are obvious advantages of robot shipts. Ships are already highly automated and depend on remote systems for navigation and weather monitoring, among other things. Remote and robot control is almost a “drop in” for the most advanced vessels.  Ships are dangerous workplaces, so there is good reason to remove human crews as much as possible.

Ships are also good candidates for automation because they are slow moving (especially compared to aircraft) and most of the time they operate in sparsely occupied space. Many ships operate on long, carefully planned voyages and may be tied to significant economic factors, which is yet more data to feed the robot systems.

In short, automating ships makes total sense.

Of course, there are challenges, and we can look to the important roles played by humans to see what will be hard for robots. The human crew maintains the health of the vessel, and reports problems. The crew also takes legal responsibility for the ship and its cargo.

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) group has published a white paper on “next steps” [1], which gives a detailed discussion of the prospects and challenges. It is refreshing to see significant sections on that give equal treatment to safety and legal issues. It’s not just technology and “disruption”, there are serious things to work out.

Ships must maintain awareness of their environment, including unexpected events not known to the digital systems. Important operations, such as entering and leaving harbor, need very careful attention to other traffic and hazards.

Levander cites other interesting benefits. Eliminating the crew allows designers to leave out crew quarters and other features, with the prospect of more streamlined and efficient ships. A crewless ship is far less vulnerable to piracy, as they would be difficult to board and would have no human accessible controls. There also would be no crew to ransom.

Notably, automation will likely entail a shift to remote operations, with crews stationed on shore, operating from command centers. This raises fundamental questions about the interpretation of the Law of the Sea. Is a ship with no crew on board (but perhaps one on land thousands of KM away) legally a “vessel”, with the same rights and obligations as conventional ships? After all, an “abandoned” ship can be boarded and taken as salvage.

If general, how will the requirements for proper trained crew be interpreted? E.g., will it be possible “a safe manning document could be issued even if there is not a single crew member on board the ship, i.e. that the safe manning would be zero?” ([1], p.43) How will the conventions of intership communication be maintained? How will a crewless ship render aid to other mariners (or to other crewless ships)? There are also questions of legal liability for the actions of the vessel when it is autonomously or remotely guided.

In addition, there is the overall question of safety. How safe is an autonomous ship, and how can we assure that it is safe. Ships are large, complex, expensive systems that can be extremely dangerous and destructive if something goes wrong. Human crews work to prevent, avoid, and mitigate many types of problem and potential hazard, including other shipping, environmental conditions, malfunctions, fires.

It is clear that autonomous ships are coming, it simply makes too much sense.

Obviously, there will still be sailors, but more and more the puny carbon based units will be passengers and hobbyists. Our silicon based overlords will actually run the ships.

  1. Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications, Remote and Autonomous Ship –The next steps Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) Position Paper, London, 2016.
  2. Oskar Levander, Autonomous ships on the high seas. IEEE Spectrum, 54 (2):26-31, 2017.


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