The Challenges (and Folly?) of Drone Ships

The maritime press has presented two recent projects on unmanned ship remotely controlled. Rather than drone on about these notions, I will say why I believe them quite technologically possible and feasible but practically unworkable. I can think of some immediate reasons why these are the cases and can also think of another technology which is a much greater threat to shipping as a whole. Both drone technology and the other threat are long-term and not immediate concerns. Nothing in shipping happens overnight. We must recall that the ship cycle is 20-25 years from newbuilding and that the electronic cycle, while interesting, still has not met the test of cost of maintenance required for commercial service.

The first reason one should not hold his or her breaths waiting drone ships is environmental and its close cousin strict liability and its brother insurance cover. Now insurance companies will not naysay a project or be spoilsports, they will merely ask for risk experience and set their premiums inversely --  no experience high premiums. We must recall here that our industry invented marine insurance and along the way insurance in general. We must also recall that we have been doing our business for some five millennia. The shift from sail to steam was nothing compared a shift from people to computers. Expect resistance and a lot of marginal cost which owners simply will not spend on such projects. Remember the Savannah? Without sovereign risk guarantees the project would not have flown. Even so, the demonstration never got past that. The ship was not viable in trade and could not be designed to be such. Now back to environment, we have experience in the jettison – accidental or not – of very large quantities of substances into the water. Since the Amoco Cadiz and Exxon Valdez days we have built worldwide a skein of environmental regulation as to shipping that is tough – and is getting tougher. We must ask ourselves, what we would do if an unmanned ship found itself in the same position as the Prestige or Erica. Find out about it when the oil washed up on the beaches? The dramatic helicopter drop of teams of young man who immediately fix the problem is just that – television. How do we fix a ballast water spill? We can see oil in in the water. We have more pressing concerns environmentally than trying to fit drone ships into the mix.

 Putting aside the regulatory and insurance problems – which are formidable across 168 maritime registry states and even more port states, I think it is better to look at other fundamentals first.

We have approximately a $19 trillion world trade economy. Of that value some 90% or so moves by water, some $17.1 trillion in value give or take few billion. Half of the trade is in cargoes which are hazardous in large quantities. We tend to deal in large quantities. Consider petroleum and its products and in just as hazardous chemicals. Grains, cement and ores have their own problems, environmental and otherwise. The environmental hurdles to unmanned ships are likely insurmountable even with the laxest of regulatory scrutiny. This is particularly true in one place proposed -- the Baltic Sea – with a battery-driven contrivance named aptly Revolt. Batteries are a fire risk and an environmental risk aside from the cargo. Combine the environmental risks, inherently bad weather and a man in Hong Kong running the ship alone and any rational person gets the cold shivers – and it will give any regulator just that. Now this is not to argue that red flag laws are necessary. It is to argue that the concepts while feasible as engineering matters will and do run headlong into a well-built legal structure which will be very hard to change.

Turning to cost, it would seem that the capital necessary for such a venture may be in line with other similar-sized and capable vessels. There are few data, however, on how these various systems will work or even if they do work without the operators performing unnatural acts. This then all goes to the question of maintenance costs. Naval ships have used electronic systems for many years. The costs to maintain them are very great as are yard periods and overhauls. We have no such luxuries in the commercial business. A hull and its plant are expected to run and run and run. Spending two or three months of the year in a shipyard to tune the circuit boards is a non-starter. Further, we had experience with the Diesel cycle long before the ubiquitous use of them on vessels supplanting steam plants. Prior to diesel we had taken the steam plant to the apogee of technological wizardry so that in reality it could go no further without excessive costs and when it was abandoned for diesel the costs were the driver of the movement. Electronic technology historically is entering its adolescence. Does and owner want an adolescent gamester mastering his vessels and another being its chief engineer by remote joystick?

We have tried this path before. Some 30 years ago Japanese interests developed the concept of a control ship and controlled ships sailing in a little fleet. It worked. The controlled ships had no full-time persons. It failed. Costs exceeded revenue as I understand it, dear Alphonse. Nothing will kill a project faster than that economic premise. We all love the business. Only Paul Allen with his yacht-submarine does it for fun. 

There is a greater threat to manned shipping than autonomous vessels. I think it is even more fundamental. The real rival to manned ships in the container trades in particular is 3-dimensional printing and its related technologies. I believe those technologies are going to become very important in the next decade. Why ship a manufactured good to the customer when a code can be sent to a plant with various 3-dimensional printers which can produce the components for the product which can be assembled on site? No shipping, no risk at sea, no ships, fewer people.

We already are producing printed auto body parts from composite materials and molten metal parts. The biologists are printing body parts from autologous cells. Need a new heart? We’ll print one up for you. Numerically controlled or NC  programming can readily be used to cut and machine metals and other materials and is old technology. In the past year a synthetic hamburger was created from raw chemicals. When cooked the maker declared it “pretty good.” He did not mention the quantity and types of condiments placed upon said hamburger. Our computers are increasing in sophistication according to Moore’s Law as are their technologies. I can see the demise of a meaningful part of the container ship fleet in the foreseeable future if this kind of manufacturing catches on. Why should a manufacturer pay a meaningful portion of the sale price of an item in shipping when the infrastructure for custom printing becomes available – as it is starting now?  This leaves the bulk commodities and the specialty heavy lifts and the like. I suspect they will be manned for some time – perhaps with fewer people but still manned.  All this means fewer ships and fewer people.

Will unmanned ships and 3-dimensional printing merge? Possibly. However, it will not be in my lifetime and perhaps not yours. I think that ultimately the container trades and 20,000 teu ships are reaching their peaks. Technology may start to cut into their necessities just as wind cut into oars, steam cut into wind, diesel displaced into steam, semi-autonomous propulsion plants pushed aside into fully manned engine rooms, radar and satellite communications cut into multi-manned bridges, ships such as Seawise Giant in its last name and all its former names went by the wayside, and yes, containers killed break-bulk. Those were incremental steps driven by needs respectively for sustainable voyaging, regular schedules, reliably simple propulsion plants, broad-based information transfer, extension of the dollar per dwt equation to an asymptotic practical limit and port efficiency and security. What problem does the unmanned vessel solve? One. Cost. What it creates are many other ones which may or may not be soluble the way the world works in shipping. 

The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.

The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.

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John A. C. Cartner

John A. C. CartnerJohn A. C. Cartner

Dr. John A. C. Cartner practices maritime law domestically and internationally. He is designated Proctor in Admiralty by the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is member of other state maritime law associations.

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Maritime TV 'Conversations with Cartner'
A weekly discussion on maritime industry issues of the day with Shipmaster and Maritime Lawyer, Dr. John A.C. Cartner.


The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.

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