22 October 2018

Goodbye sailor?

We’ve all, more or less, become used to the idea that at some stage in the future our roads will be the preserve of autonomous, driverless vehicles. The technology exists; all that we are waiting for apparently is the evolution of an infrastructure capable of sustaining such a quantum leap whilst protecting us from possible carnage. We’ve already seen the emergence of driverless trains; I recently travelled on the Docklands Light Railway in London and am still here to tell the tale. Could we now be looking at the prospect of autonomous ships plying their trade on the oceans of the world? According to a recent statement by Rolls-Royce Marine this could be a common occurrence by 2030. Last month, the company joined forces with Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) to test its intelligence awareness system on a Japanese ferry service in the Seto Inland Sea. Apparently, this is a particularly busy stretch of water and the test was satisfactorily accomplished.

Statistics show that around 80% of maritime accidents are caused by human error. One is, therefore, tempted to conclude that the removal of all on-board personnel would be a major safety factor, and so it might well be. Let’s face it, there aren’t many crew members anyway on today’s container shipping fleet. I have been invited to visit several of these leviathans and came away musing that any of Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 carried many more matelots. Such is progress.

A fair number of the shipping company executives to whom I have spoken over the years whilst writing about the logistics industry have told me that one of the most feared occurrences at sea is piracy. It is still a very real threat, especially to vessels plying their trade in waters off Somalia, south-east Asia and, increasingly, the west coast of Africa. Even a crewed vessel may have great difficulty in fighting off such an attack, but one without anyone at all on board? We know that, in the automotive sphere, there is much concern about the possible hacking of autonomous vehicles. What if the pirates developed, or had access to, hacking technology which could effectively take control of a ship and sail it to whatever destination the pirates desired? Potentially, we would be looking at a new and very lucrative criminal enterprise indeed. Let’s not be in too much of a hurry to embrace maritime autonomy. There are many factors to consider.

Sam Ogle

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