We all know that modern aircraft are generally flown by a computer autopilot that tracks its position. Already, there is talk of replacing the co-pilot, perhaps both pilots, on cargo planes with robots or remote operators. We have also heard of progress with regard to the development of driverless cars.
But what about driverless ships? Autonomous ships are on their way.
Crewless ship technology involves controlling and piloting the ship remotely from a control centre in another part of the world. It is anticipated that within the next 5 years, the first commercial vessel to navigate itself entirely will be a short crossing ferry or a tug . It is possible that within a period of 15 years, crewless technology will be expanded to the large ocean going container ships.
The European Union’s MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) project is an initiative to assess the legal, technological and economical feasibility of operating an autonomous ship during a sea voyage across the great oceans.
However, there are possible obstacles to consider. Firstly, such technology is likely to be very costly, particularly in its early stages and one must consider whether shipowners are in a position to invest in this initiative. Secondly, there are compliance and legal challenges that need to be overcome
One must also consider whether such ships should retain at least one crew member to handle maintenance issues and emergencies such as an oil spill. Lastly, ports and harbours will need to consider what changes are required to accommodate crewless ships entering the port.
On the plus side, it is suggested that savings could be achieved through the replacement of crew and crew related quarters (galley and sleeping quarters) with additional cargo space.
From an insurance perspective, there is also an advantage that crew related injury claims could be eliminated.
But the era of autonomous ships must address risk management concerns over the safety of cargo, the failure of technology leading to disasters at sea without the benefit of immediate human intervention to help mitigate losses and, of course, such matters as the threat of piracy.