|Shipping has been abuzz for the past couple of years about autonomous ships. I have seen demonstrations of an OSV in the North Sea being operated remotely from San Diego, and the proposed project transiting three ports in Norway without human intervention. Most recently was a demonstration of remote operation of a tugboat with a drone used to secure the towline.
Yes, autonomous shipping is here—but what does that mean exactly?? Does this mean continuing to automate functions? Does this mean crew and shoreside reductions? Does this mean unmanned?
As we wrestle with these issues—and opportunities—I believe it is important for us to be clear as to what we mean by autonomous. If we mean increasing the efficiency of shipping in all its many facets (operationally, environmentally, financially), then let’s all pull on the oar! If we mean unmanned, however, there is a long road and a lot of work ahead of us.
As seen in the New York Times article below on the aviation industry’s approach to automation, they don’t believe the public is ready for commercial airliners to be flown without pilots (those of you who remember the movie “Airplane” might disagree given the performance in the cockpit). The public gains assurance from having a human being present who can override the electronics and bring the plane to safety, (no matter how misplaced their confidence in Kareem Adbul Jabar? Really??).
Whether onscreen or in real world circumstances, how we approach the issue of autonomy and unmanned needs to take into account public acceptance. This is currently part of the discussions at IMO, but should also be baked into the business plans of developers who are working in this exciting and dynamic area.
In the meantime, we can certainly tout the benefits of automation in terms of safety, efficiency and environmentally.
And as Shakespeare said: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.