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2013-12-28

What could possibly go wrong?

The funniest part to me is "SECOND EDITION".
The above tome is regularly featured on lists of "most ridiculous subject matter/book title", and thanks to the spread of the Internet, the good Captain Trimmer's ponderings hold a special place in many a sailor's heart. Not that they've ever read Captain Trimmer, but that cover...it's memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Now, even though the redoubtable ship-avoider himself may have passed to Fiddler's Green, it turns out that his tactical advice may find new application in our new century.

Behold the crewless ship.
A cleverer monkey never handled a 200,000 tonne tanker via a tiny plastic joystick
Using the sort of logic that produced the "let the robots run things" dystopian science-fiction of my youth, the problems (and no doubt the expense) of finding competent crews for the world's merchant fleets are apparently giving rise to this no-doubt forward-thinking notion of vast, automated ships plowing indifferently through the world's seaways (link may require registration).

Vada a bordo, cazzo, indeed.
Now, examples abound of the historically fleshy sort of skipper screwing up, with huge and in some cases lingering consequences. It would be hard to argue that humans could do a better job than automation, just as no human helmsman can steer as well as even the more basic sort of autopilot. But as I've discussed before, no autopilot has an innate fear of death or even of losing the ship, and so when the good ol' AP starts to become overwhelmed at 30 knots, even a not-particularly skilled helmsman can usually muster up enough chops to avoid a broach, capsize or pitchpole, events that would be untroubling to even the most current of Raymarine's offerings. Would an automated passenger jet be able to pull off a "Captain Sully", a maneuver not in any flight simulation? I think not.

Machines don't care, and if the machine is being operated by remote or partial control, I would suggest that the person with the joystick is simply not as invested in the process as would be a crew deploying engine, anchor and trysail (or their equivalents) to keep off the rocks. Should shipping therefore become a glorified video game?

The captain will see you now.
Consensus, even among marine professionals, would seem to be hard to find. The technical hurdles, never mind the inevitable overhaul of the writing of the insurance policies, are enormous. But crewless ships can't be ruled out in a world with self-parking cars and robot air forces. Where does the sensible practice of small boat crew keeping a proper watch fall when there's no one at the bridge of the container ships plying the seas? It's already somewhat difficult to attract their notice; Neptune help you in a world of automated vessels if you take on water beyond SAR range. Or simply, if predictably, get stuck.
When things go wrong, one still needs a capable generalist. You can't program for the entirely novel.

We learn in the small boat game that every convenience has a cost, and that the cost is often related to the complexity of the convenience. I find it persuasive that at this stage in human development, and during a time in which the mere removal of electricity has crippled...and continues to cripple...large swaths of the city in which we live, that "crewless ships" is going to be a helpful idea. We may be the sort of jumped-up primate that will walk into traffic while texting, leading to an entirely new class of emergency-room visits, but even as idiot monkeys unable to master their own tools, we retain a certain self-interest that has been the hallmark of a life at sea. Even a robot's life.

UPDATE 14.02.19: The future is getting closer. The robot boat Saildrone One recently completed a San Francisco to Hawai'i voyage in a reasonable (for a 19-footer) 34 days. By the current rules, were we in its general vicinity, we could raft up to it (assuming we could catch it) and claim it for salvage as it is clearly abandoned. Perhaps "pre-abandoned"?
I wonder if you are hove-to and are rammed by this thing, who do you sue for absent seamanship? O brave new world/That has such vessels in't!

UPDATE 14.03.10: For those who prefer to listen than read, here's an interesting podcast from gCaptain on the topic of "robot" ships.










4 comments:

Nigel said...

Hi Marc

I think your average ship owner would embrace the idea of "crewless" ships with open arms. For some, there will be a considerable saving in crew costs, although for many of the unscrupulous owners and operators, this will not be big saving as they are already exploiting third world crew.

Would it work, course it would work, as you pointed out, we have drones flying about dropping explosives on people, and we have lots of examples of driverless cars.
But when things go wrong, me thinks they will go wrong in a big way. Most problems on ships start with something small, if left, the problem gets bigger, and eventually it can become catastrophic. With a crew, the small problem can hopefully be fixed, but a crew less ship, that problem will escalate.
I posted on CF a link to the report on the flooding of the "Emma Maersk", a simple metal fatigue led to a weld failure on a thruster tunnel, which eventually led to the engine room flooding and loss of propulsion power. The crew, who knew the ship well, managed to keep it hanging together and the ship berthed OK-.'
This happened at the Red Sea entrance to the Suez Canal, imagine the same scenario with no crew, or a bare minimum crew who had been put on board for the canal transit. The ship would have likely sunk in the entrance to the canal, closing the canal and forcing all other ships to take the route around the Cape of Good Hope.
Unless the general public can accept some monumental disasters with ships, I dont see crew less ships happening.
And, dont kid yourself about savings, all savings made by the owner will go to shareholders, no savings will be passed on to the consumer.

Happy New Year, and glad to hear the lights are back on
Nigel

Rhys said...

Thanks for commenting, Nigel: I respect the opinion of a professional sailor, particularly one such as yourself with your "December off the Faroes" work schedule!

I concur with your points. Everything is a trade-off, and if people are willing to accept the consequences of crewless ships in order to keep crap from China at bargain prices in inland Walmarts, I'm sorry to say that it is likely to happen. Just this morning, I read of yet another exploding oil train, this one in North Dakota. Oil on trains instead of pipelines is a direct consequence of the public's dislike of, and opposition to, pipelines. The need for the oil is a direct consequence of North Americans liking massive SUVs and similar vehicles. The explosiveness of the oil is a direct consequence of pumping it out of "tight" wells using volatile chemicals, plus (perhaps) a failure to purge all the cohabiting natural gas. Lastly, in order to maximize "shareholder value", a lot of these freight trains have only a single operator (see "just about crewless"), which led to the death of 50-odd people in Lac Megantic in Quebec last summer with a derailment in the middle of a town.

So I question not your logic, with which I agree, but your assertion that the "general public" will be consulted on what they are prepared to accept in the first place, as "voting with the wallet" in a sort of stupid and reactive way is precisely why idiotic ideas like "crewless ships" get started in the first place: to keep prices to the "consumer" low. My father was in the MN during and after WWII; and he remarked to me many years later that even in the '50s he could see the decline of British shipping due to penny-pinching...and of course, the ships of the penny-pinchers were sold by the British themselves, first to the Greeks, and then to the various Panama and Liberia-registered entities that dominate today's merchant fleets.

Everyone's all for "the environment" until the petrol tax is raised to discourage its degradation. Then, everyone's a special case!

Nigel said...

I agree that the general public would not be consulted on such an issue, but it would be hoped that as a result of some disasters, the GP would question the wisdom of a crewless ship. Although to be honest, this has not happened in the past to such an extent to change policy
I'm waiting for the first crewless jumbo jet, even with a 50% discounted ticket, I dont see a rush for the departure lounge.

Cheers
Nigel

Rhys said...

Maybe not you or I, Nigel, but then you've experienced terrible conditions in big ships, and I've had to rig sheet to tiller self-steering in considerably smaller ones: our experiences with things going wrong at sea differ more in scale, I suspect, than in type. There's a built-in cynicism, or perhaps a learned wariness, about technological conveniences that might encourage in the likes of us a more watchful habit of mind than others. As an example of others, I would wager that you have in your neck of the woods young people who, consumed by their text messaging activities, step out from between parked cars into moving traffic without raising their eyes from the screen.

When modern life begins to appear blithely suicidal, I think all bets are off, and conditions begin to favour drone navies and airlines. I think the question remains: do crewless ships make life safer or less safe for the crewed ship? Because if the seas start to fill with remotely guided 40 footers, I'll take up knitting!