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Sea-faring Drones: They’re not Ghost Ships

April 11, 2014


In a book attributed to George Barrington entitled “A Voyage to Botany Bay” (1795), the tale of the ghost ship called “The Flying Dutchman” first appeared. Barrington wrote:

“I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.”

Over the years, similar tales have been told about sailors discovering ships adrift on the sea completely intact but without a sign of a crew anywhere to be found. Perhaps the best documented and most mysterious case is that of the Mary Celeste, which was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean on 5 December 1872. According to Wikipedia, “The Mary Celeste was in seaworthy condition and still under sail heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar. She had been at sea for a month and had more than six months’ worth of food and water on board. Her cargo was virtually untouched and the crew’s personal belongings including valuables were still in place. None of those on board were ever seen or heard from again and their disappearance is often cited as the greatest maritime mystery of all time.” Such sightings are generally considered a bad omen by those who make a living sailing the seven seas. There is an even more ominous threat to seamen on the horizon. The threat comes not from a ghostly apparition but from crewless, autonomous ships; and, the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the union representing about 600,000 of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, isn’t amused.


“Military drones already fly frequent missions and civilian operations using unmanned aircraft are coming,” reports an article in The Economist. “Driverless cars are clocking up thousands of test miles. So why not let remote-controlled ships set sail without a crew? Indeed, the maritime industry has started to think about what would be required to launch a latter-day Marie Céleste.” [“Ghost Ships,” 8 March 2014] The article explains that technology has been moving shipping in that direction for years.

“Ships, like aircraft and cars, are increasingly controlled by electronic systems, which makes automation easier. The bridges of some modern vessels are now more likely to contain computer screens and joysticks than engine telegraphs and a giant ship’s wheel. The latest supply ships serving the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea, for instance, use dynamic positioning systems which collect data from satellites, gyrocompasses, and wind and motion sensors to automatically hold their position when transferring cargo (also done by remote control) to and from platforms, even in the heaviest of swells.”

The article reports that the maritime industry would like to replace crews for two reasons: safety and cost. It notes, “Most accidents at sea are the result of human error, just as they are in cars and planes” and “it is becoming increasingly difficult to sign up competent crew prepared to spend months away at sea.” The article doesn’t mention the fact that crewless ships would also eliminate some of the perils associated with piracy, like the saga retold in the movie “Captain Phillips.” Of course, it opens up a number of other questions about how drone ships would defend themselves against pirates. But pirates aren’t the greatest current concern. The article asserts, “It is not so much a technological challenge that has to be overcome before autonomous ships can set sail, but regulatory and safety concerns. As in the air and on the road, robust control systems will be needed to conform to existing regulations.” Perhaps chief among the challenges to be overcome is getting insurance for such ships. Isaac Arnsdorf reports, “Unmanned ships are illegal under international conventions, which set minimum crew sizes. If drones don’t comply with such rules, they’d be considered unseaworthy and ineligible for insurance, says Andrew Bardot, executive officer of the International Group of P&I Clubs, whose members insure 90 percent of the global fleet.” [“Will Drone Cargo Ships Sail the Seven Seas?Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 27 February 2014]


Marcus Wolhsen explains that the discussion about autonomous ships isn’t surprising given what else is taking place in the supply chain. [“Drone Cargo Ships Will Make the Real World Work Like the Internet,” Wired, 27 February 2014] He writes:

“The push for drone container ships is part of a much larger effort in the logistics industry to automate the way goods and products move from place to place. Amazon is already using warehouse robots to move stuff inside its formidable order fulfillment operation, which has made cheap two-day delivery the industry standard. The online retailer has even promised delivery by tiny unmanned aircraft, though these are still more fantasy than reality. Google’s self-driving cars, on the other hand, are already on California highways. If the search giant follows through with its early efforts to compete with Amazon in the retail game, these autonomous vehicles could become a driverless fleet for the last mile of online order fulfillment.”

The manufacturer most responsible for the current debate about drone ships is Rolls-Royce. The company, which has been working on such a concept since late 2013, claims, “Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade.” [“Rolls-Royce Drone Ships Challenge $375 Billion Industry: Freight,” by Isaac Arnsdorf, Bloomberg, 25 February 2014] According to the editorial staff at Supply Chain Digest, “Rolls Royce’s efforts are connecting to something called the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN). The program is co-funded by the European Commissions and aims to develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship, which is defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station. MUNIN is a consortium of eight partners that have the relevant scientific and industrial background. The group is studying the operational, technical and legal aspects in connection with the vision of an autonomous ship.” [“Global Supply Chain News: Will We Soon See Drone Cargo and Container Ships?Supply Chain Digest, 26 February 2014]


The article in The Economist asserts that autonomous ships will likely be introduced in phases. It explains:

“The transition to unmanned ships could take place in steps, says Oskar Levander, head of engineering and technology for the marine division of Rolls-Royce. Crews would be reduced as some functions are moved onshore, such as monitoring machinery. (The engines on jet aircraft are already overseen by ground stations.) This could be followed by some watchkeeping and navigation duties. Experienced crew might be put on board when ships leave or enter port, just as pilots are to navigate. And a small maintenance crew could be kept for the voyage until remote-control systems prove themselves. A fleet of autonomous ships could also sail in convoy with a manned vessel in the lead.”

In other words, don’t anticipate seeing drone ships plying the seas anytime in the near future. There are simply too many hurdles to be overcome and too many stakeholders involved for the rapid implementation of a drone fleet. Nevertheless, I anticipate that within the decade a drone ship will be used to carry cargo under very controlled conditions, probably in the European theater. Shortly after that, institutions like the United States Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, New York, will be teaching future mariners how to pilot merchant vessels remotely from a computer console.

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