We’re already aware of the latest technology phenomenon that technology gurus predict will be a feature of life in the next years – driverless cars. However now, designers are also looking into crewless ships. In 2016 there was a launch of the US Navy’s first unmanned ship called the 132 foot Sea Hunter. It is expected to enter service in 2018. The big question to ask is – how will unmanned ships impact the transport and logistics field?

The benefits of Unmanned Ships

The first and major benefit is on costs. A large part of any ship’s capital cost is spent on the living quarters utilized by the crew. So removing cabins, galleys, restrooms and health facilities lessens construction expenses and saves a lot of money. Additionally, eliminating living quarters also improves fuel efficiency and reduces running costs. The direct costs of maintaining a crew, providing wages and food, heating/air conditioning and waste disposal are all removed.
Another factor supporting unmanned ships maintains that they will be safer. Most accidents are the result of human error. As on the roads, factors like fatigue, loss of concentration and bad judgement all cause accidents. These errors will be eradicated by automation. Full automation will mean that ships can communicate effectively with each other along with their land-based headquarters. This will make for efficient use of shipping lanes and harbour facilities.

Will They Really Be Safe?

The biggest fear about unmanned ships is psychological resistance when it comes to handing over complete control. It will take quite a while before ships that carry passengers without a captain in real command are accepted. If protocol allows for a land-based operative to take control, the element of human error makes show again.
While it may be in agreement that risks would be greatly reduced should all ships be unmanned, it will take time before both manned and unmanned ships share the seaways and harbours. Protocols for that transition will be complicated.

When Will The Future Arrive?

The longevity of ships means that any transition is going to take a long time. Some of the ships on sale right now have been around for decades and are good to go for more decades to come.
While it may be realistic to fit older vessels with new technologies, it is unlikely that it will be an economic prospect in most cases. Cars for example, can communicate using land-based systems such as 4G while no such network is available for large-scale transfer mid-ocean. Shipping will need international standards for data transfer. Such things are expected to take time.

Another challenge will be issues relating to responsibility. Without a captain on board, there is really no one to take on ultimate responsibility should something go wrong. There are very complex legal issues in place that need to be resolved between owners, software developers, and national and international authorities.

Lastly, ships have difficulty surveying their surroundings on the high seas. For example, the unmanned ship would have to identify the location of smaller vessels in its surroundings when both are moving unpredictably in three dimensions in storm conditions.

Having mentioned the time it will take for us to adopt the idea of unmanned ships and factors that still need to be fixed and considered, there is no doubt that they are very likely to be the mark of the future. The technological problems will be fixed, and human psychology will eventually take a liking and adapt to the idea as soon as it seems possible.
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