Autonomous Ships (again)

This subject was covered in the tread “The Future of Ships” but I felt this view deserves its own thread

This article raises many of the same points I did on the subject of unmaned shipd

"The world will never see fully autonomous transoceanic commercial cargo ships. In fact, autonomous vessels are likely to operate in only very limited situations"


You are late…
…in five days our expert for this topic will be back from his vacation…
…definitely ‘on topic’.

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Oh, is that where he is? Why would he leave is perfect Norway?

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How modern communications and technology might change shipping as we know it could be an interesting topic. But all the threads on autonomous ships seem to turn into uninformed yes/no arguments.

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Concur, but the journey is aspirational and likely to produce multiple gains and won’t stop anyway so articles like the linked one would be better served to describe challenges to be solved more than sweeping declarations as a—what?— a call to inaction? Is that the author’s goal? I could save him the trouble. That’s not going to happen, and generally one should never say never.

The author’s position on why we will never see a fully automated autonomous ship is primarily (not exclusively) summed up as ‘expense’, and when speaking of technological advances this word means little since expense is relative, and in this case relative to the cost of human operators and what human operators bring with it. Lots of current tech advances were envisioned as too expensive in their early development.

I also don’t understand the author’s point on battery tech.

“One present obstacle for automating larger vessels is battery technology. At the outset, today’s batteries simply do not have the energy density necessary to power larger commercial vessels. Higher capacity and more powerful electric batteries that are powerful enough to move larger ships will likely be developed in the future. However, current battery technology has limitations. Lithium ion batteries, the type used for automated vehicles and aircraft, can explode if overcharged and further, large lithium ion batteries need to be temperature controlled to work properly.”

I don’t see that this is an obstacle for autonomous ships but the author seems to be aggregating battery/electrically powered ships with autonomous. There’s no need for an autonomous ship to be totally battery powered anymore than a manned ship or the internally combustion powered aerial drones capable of sustained flight. The obstacles of current battery tech are what they are but are not unique to autonomous versus manned vessels so this doesn’t support the overall argument especially since the tech is only getting better due to need/desire for improved storage generally for alternative energy and other areas.

Whether the fully autonomous concept realizes broad acceptance or not, it will undoubtedly be deployed in some areas at least initially, and grow from there. Even if it doesn’t gain full acceptance, it is inevitable that the paradigm of crew makeup and size will change as a result of automation and technology based as crew size and makeup is based on 19th century and earlier paradigms to this day. Totally unmanned large freighters and tankers on oceans voyages—perhaps not likely in the future. Sharply reduced crews? Absolutely. The development track to fully autonomous has many lucrative waypoints to incentivize the ongoing attempt. Far from being an argument against the project, ‘expense’ is the why of the effort being made at all.


I thought the swerve into battery technology was weird when I read the article but thinking about it; battery powered vessels occupies somewhat the same short-run niche that might lend itself to unmanned vessels. Also battery/electric is far simpler then diesel/electric so the an expansion of battery powered vessels may to a degree open more territory for autonomous vessels.

The author seems to see it an important limiting factor, I don’t see how that’s the case in the big picture. More people in the game maybe.

I think the author would have been better served if he had just stuck to this point and elaborated it:

The most serious concern regarding autonomous vessels is the one that will very likely keep them from ever being employed: the risk of exploitation by adversaries, hackers, terrorists, criminals, and other malign actors. Autonomous vessels’ dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace infrastructure coupled with the lack of any human on-scene responders will provide an opportunity for others to interfere with these ships and potentially use them as weapons or for profit. The challenge for system designers is that the characteristics or features that make an automated system feasible for commercial application, such as standardization, continuous communications, and periodic updates, also provide exploitable opportunities for bad actors. Autonomous commercial cargo vessels would provide too easy a target of opportunity for theft, misuse, interference, or worse.

That’s the show-stopper. Not to mention the effect of a limpet mine on a couple of tons of lithium ion battery. The most likely first incident, IMHO, will be ransomware injected through a supply chain attack. Bitcoin has solved the primary problem for such attackers, which was how to get the ransom without being detected. Ah, modern times :slightly_smiling_face:

In other news: Increased Activity by Iranian State Hackers



Apart from the threats to the vessel by pirates, hackers and the like the problems I see in operating a vessel in world wide trade are keeping the very sophisticated systems operating. Many ports in the world lack the infrastructure to support the systems in use on vessels today and vessels regularly sail with non operating equipment. Preparing a vessel to sail from Seattle to Panama would be similar to preparing a rocket launch and paying for the number of high priced technicians and inspectors crawling over the vessel would have the bean counters on the phone to union hall in an instant.
The can stops somewhere and in this case it is with the guy who signs off that all systems are operational and the vessel is seaworthy.

All of this technology would require legions of I.T. technicians to both maintain and fix anything that might malfunction or break. On a normal day in an I.T. section on land, the simplest things go wrong, which require someone to put hands on a cable, a piece of equipment, or to totally replace something. Until they have robots that can troubleshoot, diagnose, repair, and replace, there will always be a need to have at least one human aboard who can do all that.

Also, the simple pirate with a motorboat can board unopposed, and hijack a multimillion dollar unmanned monstrosity. All the tech in the world can’t prevent this. Even if you know where the ship is, unless you have an armed QRF standing by, and a way to get the QRF there, your ship is still in pirate hands,and you either take it back by force or pay the ransom. Not so cost-effective there.

“Also, the simple pirate with a motorboat can board unopposed, and hijack a multimillion dollar unmanned monstrosity. All the tech in the world can’t prevent this. Even if you know where the ship is, unless you have an armed QRF standing by, and a way to get the QRF there, your ship is still in pirate hands,and you either take it back by force or pay the ransom. Not so cost-effective there.”

You could say the same about a manned vessel. The point is not that the existence of any vulnerability renders the issue a waste of time, it’s the fact that generally, an 80-90% prevention (or lower) will be effective enough.

I’m pretty sure I can get a lot of ATMs to payout without repercussions, as I’m sure many could do. The fact that ATMs can’t guarantee complete safeguard isn’t stopping their use or deployment. The same factors, scaled appropriately will apply to unmanned ships, just like they already apply to manned ships - I hear they can be hijacked too and there is no defense against a suitably resourced, prepared and determined adversary for a manned ship either. But there is against the average one once you determine those vulnerabilities and control strategies. The hacking options seem the greatest vulnerabilities but banks are still holding money, so something seems to work in cyber security principles that can be used to protect ships too.

Never say never, at best say, ”not yet”.

It will happen, on which scale the future will show.

Even if just the coastal shipping in Norway gets autonomous the cost savings will make it a worthwhile area to invest R&D.

I suspect the references to battery technology is because, most people believe that an autonomous ship would need to be electric, an engine just has way to many moving parts to be completely unattended for days at a time.

The lack of moving parts is often toted as proof that electric propulsion must be more reliable (also for cars and aeroplanes) but I wonder how the reliability of electric propulsion systems is in practice. I spend the last 5 years mostly on diesel electric vessels and I’d say the number of propulsion failures on the electric part of the system are about on par with mechanical issues on the diesel side. The e-motors are generally very reliable, esp. with condition monitoring in place, but the drives do have their issues due to lose connections and failure of IGBTs and such. Once the magic smoke escapes it’s good to have an ETO on board.

To come back on the original subject, I reckon we’re a fair bit away from fully autonomous ocean going vessels, but we will see crews reduced even more than they already are to the point were there’s just a couple of engineers on board. (Didn’t Mearsk design the first E class vessels to sail with something like 7-8 crew?).

I remember hearing this as well. I think the idea behind it was to have the minimum of qualified ratings onboard and then fill the rest of the number with persons who could be used in multiple roles. Sort of like the recent thread on the U.S. Navy’s new crewing of the LCS vessels. A permanent riding gang if you will.

As I understood it, for example, there would be one AB at a mooring station and three or four “helpers” who could be directed to handle lines instead of AB’s. I don’t know how well it worked or works but it was all about cost cutting so in that regard I’d imagine it worked well. I do not know if there was any finagling with the officer’s billets.

This is relevant:

Drone Spoofs Car AI

Virtual icebergs, anyone?



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I commented once or twice before on this subject and received rather rude but still wrong comments. No one can foresee nor predict nor address all unforeseeable events. Pirates have been mentioned and without a crew a vessel is easily at risk. Calling for help by a babysitter in a cubicle will be too late and having an armed automatic defense system will not only not be allowed but there is way too much liability. My point in the past though is about events that cannot be planned for or addressed. Specifically events such as a fire in a container or other source. Since my last post there have been at least two that I know of and probably many more. Fires from other sources have even caused ships with crews to have to abandon ship. So how can anyone validly argue that ships will be unmanned? Certainly they can be built but there will be losses. The system of a ship and the environment in which they operate are much to complex and “large” to allow all contingencies to be addressed. No matter what one thinks or wants there are too many unknowns that cannot be addressed. It is a simple fact.

I wonder why there was a breakdown in civility…

This alone is the reason one should avoid definitive statements like ‘never’ since it works as a reason to the positive and negative alike. No one can foresee–with precision-- and this caveat is the key to the debate. The trend of history and innovation suggests these kinds of challenges can and will be overcome. It can be difficult to imagine the end state but usually because we get locked into projecting a distant future onto the present or near future vice the track progress will actually take and the amount of time it will take.

A vessel with a crew is easily at risk too, in some ways more at risk since more is at stake and the crew becomes a point of unique vulnerability–since a ship is designed for humans to escape rapidly, and thus cannot be hardened against access in ways manned ships never will. Humans can also collaborate with pirates, and are a reason to seize a vessel itself for use as hostages for ransom.

Actually, there’s a lot that is known about the typical and atypical incidents and issues for ships at sea. It is easy to look at the complexity of the issue today and see a set of insurmountable problems and decide the effort of cataloguing and attacking the issues is so herculean as to be beyond all human ken. But this isn’t the case. Much like the security issue, the cargo container fires which led to abandonment and constructive loss is a point of lower vulnerability for unmanned. The crew becomes an element of the failure of the control of the manned ship due to the primacy of protecting human life. Whereas, if the hold is adequately protected from the machinery (and yes any air intakes) and telemetry is maintained, more can be done for longer with autonomous. A crew unable to breathe due to the toxic fumes, hot decks and bulkheads and absolutely no interest in saving an insured vessel departs, the machinery fails, the ship stops and is at the mercy of the elements and the distance of the response assets. The autonomous ship could feasibly sail to those response assets. It is possible the autonomous ship would do better in multiple other scenarios for the lack of human and human engineering based vulnerabilities.

It is not a fact, it’s an opinion and if it were a fact, it surely wouldn’t be simple.

When the steamship builders contemplated tackling the oceans, they didn’t start from zero, steam ferries were plying the rivers and near coastal areas. The thought of taking on the Atlantic was probably much like this discussion, plenty of room for nay-saying. Too much risk, what if the engine fails, economic issues related to engines and space for fuel versus cargo and passenger and soon, what if, what if - so, not surprisingly most of the early steampships were also fitted with sail because no one could imagine or have sufficient faith. It took time of course, but think about the trajectory from that point of steamships moving from rivers and near coastal to the oceans, and to today—where not only are sails not fitted, but there is often, usually, only one engine! A lot of naysaying, distrust, and forecasts of doom, but if you look at the endstate, a lot of the issues and nay saying was perhaps not wrong, but it was overcome. There’s rarely a place for blanket ‘never’ statements. (Rarely, not never…)

Whatever one’s opinion on the matter, nay sayers are proven right until they’re not, and people who can see an avenue for it have to wait until it is done to be proven right. Thus, ‘nay sayer’ is a comfortable side of an argument. I think people look at this issue and things as they are today. Despite all the perceived uncertainties, risks, and challenges, there will always be incremental moves forward that one day will form a present/future unimaginable to many folks in the past. That autonomous (perhaps battery powered) ferry will get a longer route, the series of ‘next’ steps will seem obvious and newly feasible, and then achievable, and before you know it…

Indeed… but I would say history informs the argument, largely to the positive. But, there seems little point in an opinion-based discussion of the future, so I’m good with letting this thread die. However, I will point out that there seems agreement on the increase of automation, technology & innovation leading to further reduction in manning, and that is that incremental, next step we can see today.

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This is a funny video

China wants in on the act of unmanned ships:

And electric propulsion for river and short sea ships:

PS> It looks like Ulstein X-Bow is finding favour in China.

Doesn’t look like an Ulstein design, though. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was just a knock-off.