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Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

Posted August 10, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes

Some critics believe the world shipping industry is struggling. According to the International Maritime Organization, over 90% of the world’s trade takes place on the seas. But shipping companies overburdened with outdated container ships are scrapping them for a fraction of what they initially paid, major shipping lines are going bankrupt, and profitability in the industry is weak.

These conditions might make the industry ripe for innovation in the near future. Specifically, the shipping industry could take a page from automotive developments and turn to autonomous ships to alleviate the profitability issues.

Rolls-Royce is leading the charge toward remotely operated vessels, projecting that the first one could launch in coastal waters in 2020. About a year ago the company released a YouTube video imagining a futuristic “command center” remotely controlling scores of ships around the globe. While it’s tempting to dismiss this excessively overengineered vision, autonomous shipping comes with some potential benefits. Eliminating a crew of 16 or 17 workers for every ship makes the whole process safer. Seafaring is dangerous work: according to an Allianz report, between 1996 and 2005 UK vessels experienced around 11 deaths for every 100,000 seafarers. That’s 12 times higher than the general UK workforce. Other countries were even higher: Poland and Denmark experienced 84 and 90 deaths per 100,000, respectively.

The Allianz report claims that 96% of maritime accidents are the result of human error, and AI advocates (like Rolls-Royce) point to the fact that unmanned ships would obviously eliminate the operator fatigue problem. Autonomous ships could also reap other benefits, like greater efficiency and eventually lower costs. But the Allianz risk report mentioned warns that an overreliance on technology could make shipping more dangerous. The report cites several instances of accidents caused by faulty GPS equipment, including the famous instance when the Royal Majesty cruise ship ran aground near Boston in 1995. In the case of a malfunctioning autonomous ship, an onboard human could override the technology, but doesn’t this defeat the purpose?

Like autonomous vehicles, though, nothing is truly black and white, so the industry could employ AI technology piecemeal or only for certain ships. GPS-enabled autopilot has been common for some time, so a more mature version of this tech could bridge the gap to full autonomy. And even industry leaders like Rolls-Royce know that autonomous ships are even further in the future than autonomous vehicles. Until then, no need to worry what you’d do if a 500-ton supertanker—without a pilot, no less—goes rogue on the high seas.

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#1

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/10/2017 8:58 AM

I wonder if the right combination of AI and competent crew would prevent accidents like the ramming of the USS FitzGerald by a container ship. If one goal is increased safety, and not just cost savings, I'd think that there's a solution somewhere between autonomous and 100% human operation.

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#2

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/10/2017 12:23 PM

New George Lucas film.

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#3

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/10/2017 1:32 PM

It's going to be a big boost for the (required) maintenance engineer/s and support staff... Which I guess could be family at that point.

Or you could make a fleet of high dollar maintenance ship's dotting the route..

Or why not just make maintenance free ship's!

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#4

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/10/2017 7:33 PM

Piloting the ship is the 'easy' part. Keeping it running without humans on board . . .

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#9
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Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/14/2017 11:28 AM

And if it does stop running, without someone to fix the problem and restart, steerage is lost and pilots are useless except to send out an SOS.

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#5

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/11/2017 11:33 AM

It could certainly lessen the problems with Piracy; but then the hackers would become pirates!

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#6

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/12/2017 2:38 PM

The writer should do some more research before putting this out. A "500 ton supertanker"? Really, oil barges have a gross tonnage about 500 tons or tonnes. A 1200 foot Supertanker runs more than 200,000 tons.

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#10
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Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/14/2017 9:27 PM

200,000 tons moving at 20 knots and nobody on board. It sounds kind of risky to me.

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#7

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/13/2017 6:22 PM

When something does happen, at the least the "captain" will go down with the ship.

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#8

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/14/2017 10:54 AM

Wonderful opportunity for digital pirates.

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#11

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/15/2017 6:39 AM

Modern ships can navigate themselves to anywhere on the planet already.

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#12

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/16/2017 7:47 AM

What could possibly go wrong?

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#13

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/17/2017 3:54 PM

This sounds to me like technology trying to solve a problem its not suited to solve. If the root of this shipping problem is the cost or liability of having humans on board then remote automation will solve that problem. It sounds more like there's been an overproduction of the Panamax size container ships (old Panama canal size) will be quickly become obsoleted by the much wider Neo-Panamax vessels. More cargo, less fuel consumption and less but not zero crew.

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#14

Re: Could Driverless Boats Boost the Shipping Industry?

08/20/2017 11:42 AM

My understanding of these ships is the cost of crew is not a major financial issue compared the the costs of the fuel,upkeep and related international bureaucratic fees associated with every port and whomever else can get their grubby little fingers into things.

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