Autonomous and Remotely-Operated Ships

In a world launched towards the future at increasing speed, it seems increasingly difficult to keep up with the times.

The Industrial Revolution ended a few decades ago, and we are experiencing a new intense technological phase.

In our children’s generation, the Internet virtually unites the world where global communication has become a simple and ordinary concept, which was unthinkable until recently.

Touch screens | virtual reality | magnetic levitation trains | electric cars

In the early 1990s, sailors still navigated ships with the sextant and the expensive Transit apparatuses based on a network consisting of a few satellites in orbit. It was impossible to have the ship’s position instantly as it happens today. Still, they had to wait for the transit of the next satellite that could triangulate the data and send them back in the form of coordinates for their use on the nautical chart. Their frequency varied in the order of hours. Between one point and the next, they navigate “Dead Reckoning”, and, when possible, they use the stars.

The first GPSs appeared timidly alongside the appreciated Loran and Decca only later, towards the mid-90s. The operator constantly updated the coordinates; however, the ship points were inaccurate, distorted by more than 900 meters by the U.S. military, who controlled the only existing satellite network.

Today, as we know, things are very different. The accuracy of the satellite position has shrunk to a few meters or, if desired, to a few centimetres. Satellite networks are diverse (GPS – Galileo – GNSS – Glonass – BeiDou – QZSS – IRNSS), and this technology has become in public use.

Satnav, first reserved for the military and later spread to the commercial sector, appeared on luxury cars and then spread everywhere, even on our smartphones, where they are humanised by sophisticated synthetic voices; all things that, in the 90s, were considered science fiction.

This evolutionary path enters every known field: nanotechnology, robotics, medicine, science, genetics, and cosmology.

Space exploration is no longer exclusive to governments, the first reusable rockets, which return to earth once the space shuttle is launched into orbit, are a reality, and the company that designed and built them is private: Elon Musk’s SpaceX. There is talk of travel to Mars, the colonisation of the Moon and other worlds, and space tourism.

Very soon, we will have electric planes that, like drones already, will be operated from remote locations.

The new challenge concerning solid-state battery cars and automatic driving is already on the market today, and soon, they promise, it will spread everywhere.

Heaven, earth, and what about the sea?

Automation, as I recall, starts in the 90s.

The autopilot | the “unmanned engine room” | the first chart plotters | the elimination of the radiotelegraphic station and the Radio Officer | the introduction of the GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Safety System)

We lived through those years, and we often wondered about the actual advantage of some of those choices.

However, it is impossible to stop the evolution, so sophisticated tools have replaced the most obsolete. New, more modern ways of sailing have taken over.

Nowadays, few sailors still use the sextant, perhaps the most nostalgic, some for purely didactic purposes, certainly not for the need to calculate the ship’s position. Log Table (logarithm table) probably no one studies anymore.

Thanks to the satellite tracking systems mentioned above, the ultra-modern AIS for real-time identification of targets, and the ECDIS, navigation has become safer, more precise, and more straightforward.

But progress hasn’t stopped.

Crewless trains and drones are already a reality, and self-driving cars are at an advanced stage of development. We had often wondered: when were the first remotely controlled ships?

The news is: this has already happened.

In the military field, the U.S. Navy has tested an antisubmarine drone ship for about two years: the Sea Hunter. This remotely piloted trimaran can navigate up to force five at sea.

At the end of the tests, as early as mid-2018, it will be armed and patrolling the ocean in search of enemy submarines, saving considerable money compared to a traditional minesweeper/submarine.

Today the Sea Hunter is fully operative: (link)

On the other hand, Svitzer Hermod, guided by satellite and controlled from the ground in real-time by a single operator, opened the dances in the civil field in 2017. This modern tugboat makes its first trip through a system consisting of 2 manoeuvring Joysticks, five control monitors and a series of screens to recreate the surrounding environment.

Left from the Port of Copenhagen, made some turning and returned to its mooring after having travelled about two nautical miles in a total absence of crew.

The article appeared on Forbes in 2019 (link), explaining how Rolls-Royce plans to launch its fleet of autonomous ships, promising a saving on naval transport of 20% (up to 44% by eliminating sailors). It is, therefore, not difficult to imagine how this could attract the interest of many shipowners and allow the project to expand exponentially in the future.

The date is questionable, but the point is that significant capital and governments are moving.

What are the benefits?

Indeed, the operating costs, as we have already seen, but also the drastic decrease in the number of accidents due to “human error”, the leading cause of ecological disasters at sea, the consequent number of loss of life and, finally, better management of the problem posed by pirates, making boarding ships more difficult, if not impossible.

Will piracy evolve accordingly? Will pirate submachine guns give way to hackers’ computers?

There will be many scenarios that will have to be foreseen and many questions that will have to be answered.

Oceans are very different from the skies and the earth. Even just distinguishing a target in extreme situations, such as in the event of fog, rough seas or, even worse, during a storm, implies instrument accuracy that will be difficult to obtain in a short time. The human-machine interaction we have created is imperfect but effective.

Predicting a danger and reacting to unforeseen events that often occur at sea is a complex human capacity to be replicated even with the sophisticated sensors that current technology allows us to create. Or has something changed already while I am writing?

Can we afford to pay the social cost of this new revolution? How long do we need to cushion the impact?

Everyone will have his opinion on the subject. Still, it seems inevitable that the transformation will create new scenarios, perspectives and professional figures and, on the other hand, will reduce the current ones. It is easy to imagine that many ancient crafts will be doomed to disappear.

When the change happens too fast, it’s hard to think it will be painless.

Perhaps it was not 2020 – as hypothesised by Rolls-Royce – given that the obstacles to overcome are still enormous and involve the purely technical, political and legal spheres. It will probably take even longer.

Even if the future is still to be written and, for better or worse, the speed of change seems to accelerate constantly, we cannot ignore that the course has now been charted. We can only hope for change management that considers the social implications and foresees positive solutions at three hundred and sixty degrees.