Planes, trains, and automobiles are largely automated to some extent or another. Cars are parallel parking without humans; commercial aircraft can fly and land without humans; trains are enabled to operate without humans. What about commercial shipping vessels? I’m talking about the big boys like the one that saved Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate, touches on the subject of commercial shipping automation in a recently published article, “COVID-19 Turning the Tides on the Maritime Shipping Industry.” He explains that today’s commercial shipping vessels are loaded with the latest communication technologies, IoT technologies, and other aspects that provide substantial cost savings efficiencies. From what the article states, automation in shipping vessels is highly unlikely, so I did a little more digging into this topic.
According to the Maritime Executive – an industry publication – we will never see fully autonomous transoceanic commercial cargo ships – at least for not a long time. It goes on to say that autonomous vessels are likely to operate in only minimal capacities. The reasoning is that the industry states there are too many vulnerabilities and intricate mechanical components to trust automation to control the vessel completely. Upon reading this, my mind brings up a video I saw of Elon Musk celebrating the accomplishment of launching a full-scale rocket into the atmosphere, have it reach inner space, then return to earth and land in the same spot that it started from – all automated. Is the shipping industry saying that their method of transportation is more complicated than space travel? I don’t know enough about either to choose a side, but it is fascinating to think about and explore. So I did.
I found an article that states, “In 2017, SEA CHARGER, a small solar-powered and crewless home-built boat completed a trip from California to Hawaii using GPS and a satellite modem for guidance and connectivity. And companies in the shipping industry are already using technologies that could eventually be used to automate larger vessels. The newest vessel of the Red and White Fleet, a San Francisco charter boat company, is a hybrid diesel-electric with a 160-kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack that provides enough power for the ship to do a one-hour Golden Gate cruise on battery power alone.”
So, it seems possible even if the shipping industry isn’t quite ready for it. It appears that to equip a large cargo ocean liner fully requires an enormous expense and design complexity, something that isn’t a viable option at this point. Perhaps as older ships are retired, and new ships are designed and built, we will start seeing more technological integration toward fully automated commercial shipping vessels.