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  • Melvin Mathews

Christmas trees, autonomous ships & broccoli

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

I was recently asked to comment on unmanned ships and autonomous ships. To me, an unmanned ship is one with no people on board. Hence, we can equate it to a remote-controlled ship operated from ashore. With current developments in technology there are companies that already claim to do just that. On the other hand, autonomous ships, as the name suggests, among other things is required to be intelligent, self-sufficient, independent and more importantly without human interference.

If you ask me, do you believe in and support autonomous transportation, my answer is, “of course yes”. If you ask me, in the future, will our oceans filled with autonomous ships be a reality, “perhaps yes” would be my wishful answer. The reason I feel that way could perhaps be only because it feels distant and like possibly something similar to what Elon Musk would say. 'We will one day colonize Mars and grow cabbages'. Without doubt it’s like a beautiful dream and it certainly gives hope while making you feel good. But is it possible today?

To me an autonomous ship is like a fully lit Christmas tree. To light up the Christmas tree, we do not turn the lights on right at the beginning and then decorate the tree. But there are a lot of steps and stages we need to transit before we get there:

1)   Is it the right season?

2)   Find the right tree.

3)   Cut it and fix it firmly at home.

4)   Decorate it with stars, trinkets, cotton, glitter, etc.

5)   Wrap the wires around the tree

6)   Finally plug in and turn the switch on

It’s the same with an autonomous ship, there are certain milestones to be achieved and hurdles to be crossed before a ship can be turned autonomous and here are a few:

1)   Entire ecosystem & infrastructure in place

2)   Design, construction & redundancy requirements

3)   Connectivity & communication capability

4)   Legal, regulatory & compliance framework

5)   Troubleshooting & predictive maintenance capability

6)   Measures to ensure safety & recovery in case of failure

7)   Security including cyber security

8)   Transfer responsibility for anything & everything (currently with the Captain)

Fortunately, unmanned or autonomous technology is not new and therefore in my opinion doesn't need our immediate focus. I say this because, even before Neil Armstrong took a 'giant leap' for mankind in the summer of 1969, unmanned technology was routinely used to send rockets into space. The first unmanned satellite Sputink-I was sent up in the autumn of 1957. Basic unmanned and automation technology has been around and in continuous use for over half a century. We only need to make it applicable to things that float on water when everything else is ready, and then turn it on, like we do to the lights on a decorated Christmas tree. At the moment its my opinion to be prudent and focus on ironing out the plethora of other issues mentioned above that need sorting.

PS: I like Broccoli more than cabbage.

Let me know your thoughts.

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