From Lloyds List  Tuesday 12 January 2016 Lloyds List

WHY are numbers of marine professionals so enthused with the notion of autonomous ships?

The Nautical Institute seems positively potty on the idea, holding conferences on a subject which for many of us seems as remote a possibility as holidays on the moon. And in the latest edition of the NI Seaways magazine, we have the chief executive Philip Wake (who we should congratulate for his OBE awarded in the New Year honours) telling us that autonomous ships are “inevitable” and we need to start preparing for them now.

The NI isn’t alone, if you count all the acres of newsprint being filled with articles about robots and driverless cars and the gloomy predictions of all those middle class jobs that will be made redundant overnight by advanced technology.

It could be just a sort of fashionable fad, a red herring designed to get our minds off the really harsh realities, along with a few manufacturers of technology flying a metaphorical kite or two. But you surely would think that there are more important things for anyone concerned with ships and shipping to be worrying about in 2016.

We have been here before, of course. In the 1980s, the Japanese became so concerned that no person from that nation, in his right mind, wanted to go to sea, that they spent a lot of time effort and cash on the development of remote-controlled ships, which even then proved perfectly feasible in technical terms.

However, with a few strokes of the legislator’s pen it became possible to register Japanese-owned tonnage with accommodating flags, which were unfussy about crew nationalities. Even Japanese ships were subsequently allowed to carry increasing numbers of foreign (and much cheaper) crew, so the incentive for all this expensive technology went out of the window.

About the same time we had the Danish advanced ship project which was designed to accumulate all sorts of clever technology from both industry and the military, which could be crammed into a ship and which would enable it to be operated by about seven people. Once again all the technology worked, which was not surprising considering the money poured into the project and the small group of highly trained experts, who I recall could enjoy a coffee lounge in the back of the wheelhouse. They didn’t actually kill each other, so it wasn’t a social failure, either.

A small series of the world’s most expensive reefer ships was built and that was really the end of the affair. Bear in mind that these lovely, all-singing and all-dancing ships, flying Danish ensigns, were competing with bog standard reefers operated by cheap crews under convenient flags , so it is not hard to understand the reason why this experiment was of short duration. It probably also helped along the Danish International Ship Register, which was predicated on the availability of cheap international crews.

Riciculously expensive

If you are going to build ships designed to operate without onboard human assistance, they will be ridiculously expensive, to design, to force through the regulatory barriers and eventually, to operate. Certainly it could be done, but why in the world would you want to spend all that money on the complex technical systems needed to keep the ship and its cargo safe, when there is so little return on the operations of conventional, cheaply-built ships?

You wouldn’t have to spend money on crew, you will answer? Are they going to be run by themselves? You won’t hire many “ship controllers” for the monthly ITF minimum wage.

And when people assert that it will answer the perennial problem of persuading people to go to sea, this too is copper-bottomed, gold-plated nonsense. Global shipping is now so badly rewarded (largely because of the idiocy of contemporary shipowners) that the only people who are prepared to take their ships away to sea are those who don’t need a great deal of money in return. When even they become too costly, the crewing agency expeditions will discover even cheaper seafarers in some other disadvantaged part of the world in which a sea career will still seem desirable compared to their grim life ashore. Technology can do pretty well anything, but it is the money and the economics that talk, in the end.

We shouldn’t be wasting our time with such silliness. I would liken it to all the sheer nonsense expended at the International Maritime Organization and elsewhere some years ago when crazy “surface skimming” craft such as the Ekranoplan were taking up time that could have been spent on safety, structure and, more importantly, the human element for the 99.9% of ships that are found in the world’s trade routes.

I know this will enrage all these clever scientists and classification society experts who are showing off their splendid artists’ impressions of driverless ships, but I just think we need to adjust our priorities somewhat.

I began by abusing my own professional institute but within its latest publication is a letter from fellow NI Fellow Captain Malcolm C. Armstrong of British Columbia that sets out the case against autonomous ships better than I can, saying “we can all give a hundred reasons why ships should be manned by competent personnel”.

He asks very pertinently why, just because it is possible to send a ship around the world without anyone on board, we should think it inevitable that such will happen? It is possible, he adds, “to send a man to the moon, but we do not all have to go”.

So there are at least two of us! I suspect there might be more.

 Malcolm Armstrong served in Union Company during the 50 & 60’s before joining NSW pilot service.

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