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Maritime Forum



  • A.Sailor
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We have now become used to the concept of unmanned drones flying over war zones, with their amazing optics and menacing capabilities for surveillance and weapon delivery. On the surface of Mars, there is an amazing vehicle driving around and carrying out scientific sampling and experiments. So why is it still necessary to have human crews aboard ships and why cannot vessels be controlled from the shore?

In theory, the remote control of ships would be technically possible, as most of the sensors and controls that have been developed for other remote controlled vehicles could be “marinised” for use at sea. Indeed, the offshore industry already employs sophisticated underwater tools able to operate at great depths while being controlled from the surface. And there are still relevant lessons from the projects undertaken by the Japanese in the 1980s, when remote-controlled ships were researched and a large unmanned bulk carrier sent across the North Pacific on an experimental voyage, controlled by an accompanying craft.

Reservations about remote control remain considerable, many revolving around the capital cost of adapting large ships for unmanned operation. It is pointed out that other unmanned vehicles currently operating are small and compact, so that remote surveillance of its sensors would be less problematical than with a large ship and its many systems.

There is also some concern about the cost of “extreme automation” which, it has been suggested, would be far greater than the savings made by the absence of the crew. It is worth considering that ships are designed for a working life of 20-30 years and must be able to operate safely away from their bases for weeks on end on long oceanic passages. The ability of the crew to intervene in unexpected breakdowns of equipment or emergencies is an important justification for ships being manned by trained seafarers. While it might be possible for airlifted personnel to be put aboard broken down unmanned ships, in a deep sea operation this might be unacceptably hazardous.

It is also pointed out that the sea is one of the most hazardous environments, subject to great violence and during stormy weather, so the action of the crew is essential if damage is to be minimised.

Another, perhaps more curious obstacle that would have to be overcome is that of international maritime law, which at present would define any ship with nobody aboard as a “derelict”, which could be salvaged by any other passing craft with sufficient capability, and which would inevitably claim a salvage award for the intervention! Additionally, there are parts of the world where it would be foolhardy to employ an unmanned craft, with pirates ranging around and other law-breakers who would be tempted by the attractions of a very valuable ship steaming along with nobody aboard.
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Not only feasible, but done. See
But it's not a simple as remote control, first there is the cost. From ship to shore and back means using satellite, and audio and video, streamed 24/7 365 is not cheep. Its dammed expensive. Which is why (until now [we solved that problem]) remote control was not feasible. Second, what happens if the link is interrupted !!!

So whilst possible, like the aeroplane, humans have to be around just in case. The basic laws of life are: Humans make mistakes, Technology breaks down. :-)

The remote control available today is used as a last line of defence in the event a ship is hijacked. And before you go into panic at the thought of come controller on the other side of the planet stopping the engine whilst pirates hold a gun to your head! It does work that way. There are legal and ethical issues: Only the ship owner or delegate (the Cpt) has the legal right to control the ship. And ethics, of cause one does not stop the engine if there is threat to the crew. The analogy is the ambulance- They are fitted with defibrillators and oxygen, but that does not mean they use them. They are options if the situation requires or permits their use. It is so in the case of remote control of the ship, they are options, but if not fitted, there are no options.

The remote control option goes far beyond just stopping the engine. Any aspect of the ships systems can be remotely controlled. And furthermore, that control can be passed (with the owners consent) to any naval or coast guard vessel to aid in the recovery of the crew and their ship.
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