Being from an OSV background I don’t think oil companies will allow completely autonomous ships next to the rigs any time soon but, remotely controlled ones, that’s the immediate future. You can already take control of the DP systems from anywhere, and the throttles and rudders and electronical controlled as well for the DP system so ship control is already done. It’s just a matter of relaying the navigation info back to the guy on watch.
What will happen is I will sit at my desk at home wearing some type of VR system with A DP panel and hopefully a set of throttle and rudder controls for more direct input when needed. Relaying of the DP system to move a boat for anything other then operation in the field even on joystick blows. Takes too long for commands to happen. There will be cameras that move with my head giving me 360 degree field of vision, along with other cameras as needed for cargo ops and docking. I’ve already been on boats where I would use the cameras exclusively to dock and it was no big deal. Hopefully some rotary dials that I can assign to various things like radio channel selection, radar range, etc. to make work flow a little better.
In the VR helmet you could have an overlay of the radar, ECDIS, and AIS systems as you look out the “window” to help you navigate. Imagine going down a channel at night with the banks overlaid with the FLIR, ECDIS chart and radar image. There is a bend up ahead you see the AIS buble pop up for a vessel with its info that you can’t see yet. You look down to check your traditional radar to get an idea of it’s position and make a radio call to arrange passing.
The biggest issue I see is connectivity. Satellites are great and work most of the time, but are weather and heading dependant on some vessels. So there would need to be some type of redundancy. I know in the GOM there are enough structures that 4g wireless could be done for all of the shelf and a lot or the deep water.
What I think will happen before that is you will see a convoy of OSV’s with all of them controlled by a mother ship headed to a rig. With direct data connection using WIFI to control them