Autonomous cargo vessels could set sail without a crew under the watchful eye of captains in shore-based simulators
MILITARY drones already fly frequent missions and civilian operations using unmanned aircraft are coming. Driverless cars are clocking up thousands of test miles. So why not let remote-controlled ships set sail without a crew? Indeed, the maritime industry has started to think about what would be required to launch a latter-day Marie Céleste.
Ships, like aircraft and cars, are increasingly controlled by electronic systems, which makes automation easier. The bridges of some modern vessels are now more likely to contain computer screens and joysticks than engine telegraphs and a giant ship’s wheel. The latest supply ships serving the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea, for instance, use dynamic positioning systems which collect data from satellites, gyrocompasses, and wind and motion sensors to automatically hold their position when transferring cargo (also done by remote control) to and from platforms, even in the heaviest of swells.
However, as is also the case with pilotless aircraft and driverless cars, it is not so much a technological challenge that has to be overcome before autonomous ships can set sail, but regulatory and safety concerns. As in the air and on the road, robust control systems will be needed to conform to existing regulations.
The maritime industry is interested in crewless ships for two reasons. The first is safety. Most accidents at sea are the result of human error, just as they are in cars and planes. So, if human operators are replaced by sophisticated sensors and computer systems, autonomous vessels should, in theory, make shipping safer.