Quo Vadis: Where goes the digital ship?

Russell Hodge from surveyors Pirie & Smith peers into the future.

While many of us may not realise it, the dawn of the autonomous ship is already breaking. The combinations of Rolls-Royce, Wartsila, Bourbon, the Finnish funding agency and now Google all sign the approach of the steamroller. The tools, in one form or another have been with us for some time.

Unmanned engine spaces have been operating for 30 years (the less charitable might say longer), Line Replaceable Units (LRU) which permit speedy equipment maintenance have been a part of aviation technology for years and now drone technologies have opened the door to the future.

The genesis of these systems is the lessons learnt in the offshore industry over the 50 some years that dynamic positioning has been with us. DP practices have developed to the stage where GPS fixed navigation through set waypoints provides controlled navigation but, most of all, DP Class 3 which sets the rules for fire and flood compartmentalisation will have to be rigorously enforced or any ship fire will render the vessel ransom to the infamous Lloyds Open Form. Contrary to what many think, we will not be using pure electric power derived from wind power, we are not going to let nuclear reactors roam free around the oceans, so the dear old diesel will be around for some time to come, it will simply be packed in what we lovingly refer to as a ‘cat in a box’, with a touch of remote monitoring to take away Schrödinger’s uncertainty.

Inland vessels, harbour feeders and the great barges that ply the inland waterways of Europe will be the first to see major changes. For me a repetition of history, my great grandparents were barge folk, evicted from their homes and lives by the modern technology of the steam railway. It is drone technology assisted by ECDIS and short range, high accuracy positioning systems, which will permit the operation of multiple barges by one person. The algorithms for vessel traffic control were developed more than a decade ago in the United States to ease commuter traffic flow in California’s major cities.

For deep sea operations there are shared and separate hurdles which face the designers. Remote and automated control of ships is subject to four principle weaknesses; sunspots, governments, hackers, and software.

Back the late ‘90s the Galaxy 4 satellite span out of control cutting off pager communication to most of North America. The loss of control was put down to sunspot activity, it was believed, but never proven, that several military satellites also went AWOL at the same time, the truth is that no one really knows but it nevertheless provides a basis for conjecture. The Carrington solar flare of 1859 was so great that it caused telegraph poles to flash and operators to receive electric shock. I live near Toulouse where a visit to the Cité de L’Espace only serves to remind how fragile our communications satellites are. If we mix in a healthy dose of Moore’s Law we see we are packing a lot more transistors on those silicon chips which increase the network capacity of those satellites and that makes them more vulnerable to static discharge – another Carrington fFlare could wreak havoc on our entire communications network an leave our autonomous ships all at sea.

We rely on satellites to position the vessels so the computers know when to change course to avoid the rocks. Anyone who worked in DP before 2000 remembers Selective Availability which deliberately degraded GPS accuracy. In times of political tension there is nothing to stop the controlling governments introducing error or even turning the systems off altogether. Amoco Cadiz or Exxon Valdez anyone?

We only need to look at the press to raise concern about the security of our operating systems. While cyber security is probably the most fruitful ground for modern charlatans, hucksters and other ne’er-do-wells the fact remains that our operating systems are not secure. Yahoo (again), Deloitte, Equifax in the last few months alone, and let us not forget Maersk to bring it closer to home. For the moment most criminal hacks are aimed at financial data, but the Stuxnet virus and the assault on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 serve as just two reminders that control systems are vulnerable too. Many systems use real-time control platforms which decreases vulnerability but they use Windows as the human interface. It is all very good to have a reliable control network but a little disconcerting when all your control stations are announcing that they have been encrypted and you need to pay into a Bitcoin account to get them released.

Much of the software that we use is subject to the Windows Finger effect: licences. We can’t install the software without accepting the licence so the licence is often accepted without reading the terms or verifying the time limitations. A major software vendor recently had significant product issues based around Windows certificate expiry. I have witnessed similar effects on expired licences on undocumented software inhibiting system start-up.

I argued at the Houston DP Conference in 2005 that we should drop common operating systems and communications media because of their obvious vulnerabilities but we continue to use them today because they are cheap and readily available, and have become considerably more so in the two decades that have passed since that call. Capex is the weakest reason of all to continue using a technology with a reputation for having more holes than a Swiss cheese; it is subject to a 15 second sound bite and a clip of an oil soaked seal to put an end to any realistic development of automated ship technology for another 20 years.


  1. Although there definitely are markets for autonomous or even unmanned ships and we could use them today should we had them, the industry helmsmen still need to more worry about training the crews for the (bigger) rest of the World fleet.

  2. Why ‘infamous Lloyd’s Open Form’? The contract has saved marine insurers billions of dollars since its inception. It was developed by the Lloyd’s marine insurance market and has withstood the test of time for over 100 years.

  3. Mark, I beg something of a little literary leeway here, the comment was meant to be no more than tongue in cheek. More my sense of humour than anything else.
    As to the test of time, the LOF may not have the immutability and durability that you think. The affects of improved communications and the instant replay effect on choice of LOF or alternate agreement and the need for revision of the LOF is a matter already making some ink run.
    However, unmanned, automated, vessels are going to pose issues in legal circles for more reasons than one. Precise definition will be required to determine the circumstances under which salvage, tow, or even local remote control (oxymoron that it sounds) agreements would be applicable and the means by which multi-party agreement will be made. But that might be the subject of a whole article in itself.

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