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Drone ships, convoys and the modular vessel

Drone ships, convoys and the modular vessel

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A tale of the near future… possibly. Maritime analyst Dave Walker tries his hand at science fiction.

The ten-person crew had joined the convoy by pilotless flying drone. Some of them still preferred pilot ladders.

At least with the ladders, they had the fleeting sensation of holding their fate in their own hands. They gathered, standing on the starboard bridge wing of the Santa Maria’s accommodation module, looking aft. The two other autonomous container drones in the three-vessel convoy, Nina and Pinta, were strung out astern, identical to Santa Maria except for their missing accommodation and service modules.

A few days before, all three ships had released their automated moorings and self-maneuvered their way offshore to the port’s marshalling zone. As usual, the ship-congested area had necessitated unlocking the expensive enhanced navigation option. Soon after, they had picked up their human babysitters and begun the long voyage to the west. Although they were relatively small containerships, their combined capacity belittled the single behemoths of the past. Towards the end of their journey, depending on requirements, each ship might go its own way to a separate discharge port.

The communication system of every container, linked to every server of every cargo owner, chirped constant updates on progress and condition. The cargo would continue the communication process right up until arrival at consumers’ factories and homes, every code and chip tracked from manufacture to distribution to delivery. A similar process was going on within the ships’ navigation and propulsion systems, as sensors and monitoring servers both ashore and at sea processed every parameter, vibration and signal.

For the past few months, the fleet had been using liquefied natural gas for fuel, their interchangeable power and fuel modules mounted to reflect the current energy market. The energy service provider and the vessels’ ownership consortium had projected favourable gas-fuel economics for the immediate future, but there was always an ongoing give-and-take between dual-fuel engined hybrid and gas turbine-electric modes.

The ship’s engineroom, like heavy fuel oil, was a thing of the past, now replaced with discrete, interchangeable power generation modules, hybrid gas-fuel pods and electric azipod drive units. This time, the battery hybrid units were ashore, refurbished and stored in strategically placed service centres awaiting their next deployment. It was hoped that battery technology wouldn’t get too far ahead of these units and make them obsolete, but that was the energy service provider’s problem, not the shipowners’. Volatility in the raw materials price for battery banks had also played a part in their sidelining, and they also faced competition from several combined-cycle propulsion options.

On this voyage series, the decision had been made to mount the accommodation and service module on the oldest vessel, the Santa Maria. The three ships in this convoy were the oldest in the company, their 3D-printed alloy hulls among the first built. In the years since, the shipyards had perfected their craft, the huge 3D-forming gantries following their AI master servers, redesigning, building and improving hulls and hydrodynamic profiles in a monstrous, fascinating ballet. Following the operating input from myriad hull and machinery sensors, the improvements were processed, programmed and ready for the next newbuild.

The crew knew that this was the Santa Maria’s last trip; soon she would be back at her original birthplace. She would find herself next to a new hull being 3D-formed from her recycled metal, even as her own hull still lay half-demolished by laser and plasma cutters. The scrapping beaches where the world’s ships once ran themselves ashore were almost a memory now. As 3D shipbuilding technology progressed, the methodology for building tankers and bulk carriers was at a tipping point. The world’s scrap merchants were seeing the end of the welded steel fleets as they tried to adapt and reinvent themselves.

The Santa Maria’s crew had gathered for a resource management meeting in the spacious crew mess. As meetings went, they tended to be rather informal; more of a confirmation of situations between the various professional disciplines onboard. One of the navigation programmers was trying his hand at cooking, and the senior captain and engineer had just finished discussing some variation in one of the azipod drives. The senior aptain had mused aloud as to how long her profession would be around as the engineer, close to retirement, ruefully nodded. One of the maritime technicians wondered if he dare broach the subject of video-game nostalgia.

The Santa Maria’s crew were not aboard to nurse-maid an old vessel to her final rest. As part of the company’s end-of-life resource management, they were reviewing, programming and preparing her for it. The service life of her hull and components had long since been worked out from constant monitoring by the management servers and sensors. Her power and fuel modules were being prepared and upgraded for their next assignment, possibly in the new Santa Maria’s hull. Non-critical ancillaries were being decommissioned and disconnected, ready for reprocessing. The company system was closely linked with class society and insurance servers. According to them, Santa Maria’s convoy mates Nina and Pinta were not far behind in meeting their recycling dates. The economics algorithms were signalling that updated hull fabrication technology had made recycling the older vessels worthwhile.

The gathered crew talked of one of the few human decisions – to combine the three ships for the Santa Maria’s last voyage. Of course this didn’t occur often in convoy groups due to operating considerations, and jokes were cracked about sentimentality and job preservation instincts at head office. The press releases on the historic nature of the three ships were roundly criticised by those present. Some media wag had nicknamed the vessels Faith, Hope and Charity, from some outdated perception of their age. It seemed the idea of the worn-out old tramp ship still popped up as a romantic notion among the less knowledgeable. Since machinery module updates were now so frequent, and newbuilds a matter of disintegrating older hulls and basically remanufacturing them, the notion seemed a little tired to those in the conversation.

The duty ship manager, ashore in the vessel operating centre, overheard the crew’s conversation. She chipped in from the large screen in the mess-room and bemoaned the poor image that shipping still had. Granted, the industry was still smarting from the infamous ‘Spanish Armada’ incident. Unknown hackers had disrupted navigation and communications to such an extent that four vessels of a six-ship convoy had gone astray, scattering themselves up and down the Scottish Hebrides and west coast of Ireland in a horribly expensive replay of the Spanish fleet’s destruction in 1588. Years later the litigation and financial restructuring was still going on, as was speculation in the maritime press. It appeared that certain entities might have balked at paying for inflated software-unlocking fees to navigate the nightmarish congestion of the English Channel, hence a rerouting of the pooled fleet around Ireland and the north of Scotland. The doom-bound cascade of underlying factors had spawned hundreds of conspiracy theories, which included everyone from hacker collectives to malignant foreign powers.

The fact that the two surviving vessels had human crews wasn’t lost on the class societies and near-bankrupt insurance consortium. Since then a lead ship with a human crew was required in each convoy, in addition to shore-based control and existing redundant back-ups. The lead vessels also had the capability of local convoy control. Sea-time rotation for shore-based remote ship operators was also required, although with rapid technological advances, the crew could see the need for such requirements shrinking. Even the ‘mother ship’ service concept of the convoys was now in question.

Similar discussions were happening over the Far East, where horrendous Malacca Strait congestion and corresponding navigation software enhancement fees had become a major bone of contention. A group of shipping financiers were reviving the Kra Canal project to bypass the whole mess, and some major negotiations had been going on behind the scenes. Someone even floated the idea of choosing manual navigation in the maritime traffic jams, but it seemed nobody had wanted to tie the bell around the cat’s neck and be the first to try.

As the crew meeting came to an end, some alarms gently bleeped. Some conflicting situation or metric had cropped up in the gas-fuel pods of Pinta, the tailend vessel. With protocols already set, the assistant engineer and the two technicians would check the pilot boat for deployment. Nestled in its bay below the Santa Maria’s service module, the sturdy vessel was part lifeboat, part workboat and was internally launched and retrieved from each ship’s stern. The emergency lifeboat was also on standby, just in case. The ship’s pilotless drones were likewise ready, but the general sentiment was against using the tiny ‘flying taxis’ at sea. In any case, the procedures had gained the label of formalities, as physical human intervention between vessels had become a relatively rare thing.

As the programmers and ship manager turned to their touchscreens to work through the fuel situation, the captains assumed local control and stood by to turn all three ships into the wind. Ready to move the Nina off to a safe stand-by distance, they kept the Pinta in her farthest-astern position until the gas-fuel safety protocols had been run. Working through their checklists, both those aboard and ashore confirmed the same conclusion a few minutes later, and after the dedicated convoy server came up with the answer. Redundant sensor loops had been run, and the alarm stemmed from a faulty fuel flow sensor.

A while later, after final checks on the potential emergency, the voyage was resumed. Santa Maria’s crew returned to their conversations. Having moved to the crew lounge at the aft end of the accommodation module, they sat chatting and staring out over the stacked containers at the ship’s wake. The manager remotely stared with them from a screen-wall.

Their conversations, at some point, always returned to the same subject – were they the last of their kind?

The ship manager, snug ashore, stayed silent.

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1 Comment

  1. Barry Parker
    October 12, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    This is a very good article. It puts a lot of the disparate tech hype into the context that a shipping person, rather than a techie, could understand. I would encourage a sequel with some blockchain thrown into the mix.