Thinking the unthinkable

Sometimes what was unthinkable yesterday is tomorrow’s reality. So now it is time to consider a roadmap to unmanned vessels of various types. Steps have already been taken, mainly in the naval area. On the way, certain functions will be moved ashore.

Engine/equipment monitoring and some underwater operations in the offshore sector could be the first. A growing number of vessels are already equipped with cameras that can see at night and through fog and snow, and have systems to transmit large volumes of data.

Given that the technology is in place, is now the time to move some operations ashore? Is it better to have a crew of 20 sailing in a gale in the North Sea, or say five in a control room on shore?

When ‘fleet optimisation’ is considered, the advantages compound. The same person can monitor and steer many ships. As conditions ashore are often preferred, it will also help retain qualified and competent crew, and is safer.

Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable. Eliminate or reduce the need for people, and vessels could be radically simplified. Attitudes and ways of working will need to change, but safe operation is possible, particularly for vessels running between two or three fixed points.

Shipping’s approach is usually about complying to regulations in the most cost efficient way while addressing the key cost issues of fuel, finance, cargo handling and crew. They can all be influenced by holistic ship design. In the future, we must not think of a ship as a number of separate processes or systems, but as a whole where all aspects affect the other. Only by thinking the unthinkable can we truly affect costs.

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