Next: Drone Cargo Ships


Romance: rum, sodomy, and the lash.
Romance? Kinda like the thrill of a fairly decent paycheck.
Are these jobs even interesting to first world people? I would think international freight jobs would be done by third worlders attracted to higher pay, not "romance of the ocean."
Don't know if it's true, but I heard or read that fully half the world's shipping vessel crew members are Filipino. There might not be a hell of a lot of Americans looking for this kind of work, but it sounds like a lot of Filipinos would be fucked.

OTOH, burning less fuel and not needing to do anything with human waste can only be good for the environment.
Piracy, a constant threat to crews in many parts of the world, could also be more effectively countered. Mr Levander says with no crew to take hostage the vessel would be less attractive. But more importantly, without any people onboard, a ship could be fitted with countermeasures, such as flooding the ship with a gas that incapacitates anyone who boards without authorisation.
Yeah, screw the crew; protecting the cargo is what counts.

Pirates will apparently have to make do with gas masks until they can get their own drones.
@5 - Are you proposing some kind of robot pirate? Why, the only thing that could stop that is a zombie ninja.
Hm, this sounds fishy to me. Container ships already have gigantic economies of scale between their megaton cargo and the minimal facilities for a small crew. Optimizing the crew out entirely ought to be a severely diminished return ...
@6: I'm working on a treatment for the screenplay right now. Are you cool with a 50/50 split on the revenue? If we shoot with an all-robot crew, there'll be plenty for both of us.
I'm with @7 on this. This story is bullshit. A giant container ship or car carrier might have a crew of a half dozen men as it is now, and not men from countries with high average incomes. Nor are cargo ships equipped with lavish entertainment facilities for the crew. To say the least.

The insurance companies will have the last say on this, of course, as they do on most everything. An unmanned ship carrying a cargo of $100 million in Mercedes... I don't see the insurers being really happy with this arrangement. Humans can be a pain in the neck, but they're also still the only operating system and tool user on the planet that doesn't have to be programmed for every single eventuality in advance.
@8 - I'm working on a program that'll write the screenplay for us. Eventually, I expect to have to patch it to write its own Oscar acceptance speeches.

Or Space Dinosaurs.
@11 - Save it for the sequel.

"They saved us from the scourge of robot pirates, but the zombie ninjas simply became pirates themselves. After five years of toiling under their brutal rule, we had lost all hope. Then they came. From space."

[cut to shot of a flaming meteor crashing into a suburb on the outskirts of LA. As the people approach the crater to inspect it, the dust clears and out steps a T-Rex wearing a glass dome over his head. He is also holding a gun in each tiny hand, and he is followed by an entourage of about a dozen armed velociraptors. They walk off toward the beach.]

Zombie Ninja Pirates vs. Space Dinosaurs
Summer 2015
I agree with @7 & 9.

This makes no practical sense. On a huge container ship, the space and wight required for the current small crew is negligible. Eliminating the crew would not save any significant fuel or space. Most are crewed by people from developing countries, making crap wages, just like they would in garment factories, so there would be little savings in wages either.

Inevitably, sooner or later one of these unmanned drone ships would collide with another vessel or run aground, resulting in a multi-million dollar lawsuit that would cost far more than a crew of a half-dozen filipinos.

This is fun science fiction, but a non-starter in the real world.
@9, typical crew numbers for container ships are more like 18-25, but your point still stands. It's also not like the ships won't have to be piloted once they get into confined waters (like say Puget Sound). That means they still need a pilothouse that can see over all those containers, so you still aren't saving anything on the superstructure. Plus, most of the routine maintenance on these ships happens at sea. That would have to be done in port or shipyard if they're drones. The costs of more unproductive weeks in the yard or alongside would probably dwarf the crew costs.
@12: I was going to suggest — since you're local — that you meet with Amazon to arrange home delivery of the action figures via Prime Air. But the obvious solution is to have them deliver themselves.
The few available images seem to show hulls without any kind of superstructure, including a functional bridge, so that would represent a significant savings in space, weight, and complexity. The crews that would be put aboard when coming into port would presumably be there mainly to throw lines to the piers. Maybe a pilot could do some fine movement control from an iPad or something.

And as for the danger of collisions: every barque, caravel, junk, trireme, windsurfer, prau, punt, whatever, should get their own damn radar or stay the hell off the ocean. (Kidding.)

But yes, accidents will happen, probably mainly in the form of capsizings in bad weather and leakage of fuel. There'll be pressure to send the shipments through to maintain schedules.
@3 Yes the hiring halls have been packed the last few months,
lots of people want these jobs, or as #2 put it the paychecks.

This is not even a new idea, Japan tried a plan like this years ago, it failed.

@16, that's just asking for trouble. First of all, the ships are required to be directed into port by a pilot. There's a decent chance pilots would refuse to bring these ships in, since there's no way to see what it's about to run over. I suppose they could rig up a pilothouse way in the bow, but then they couldn't see behind them. Since the pilots are legally responsible for bringing the ship in safely, they have a lot to say about the ships that they'll assist.

Also, (and @13), the most likely accident is that they run down some small boat that didn't show up well on radar. Reading radar is an art, especially in bad weather. The way Murphy works, the guy they ran down would be a billionaire testing out his new carbon-fiber yacht. Eyeteeth would be sued for.

The other possibility is that the pilot groups would require an escort vessel from where the pilot boards to the berth. In Puget Sound, that's from way out by Port Angeles. The ship owners would be paying a crew of 3-5 American wages for 12-24 hours per docking instead of 25 Filipinos for a week's crossing. I doubt it pencils out.
@4, I think it's more like a third, but that's still ten million sailors.

I also think it's doomed to failure. There have been all sorts of technological breakthroughs in shipping that turn out to be a waste of time. Look at the average speed of container ships, which has been going down for some time, and the class of high-speed ships with big, expensive engines has proved to be uneconomical. What matters is carrying capacity. And for all the hours of idleness on a ship, when there's nothing to do, the hours of necessary action more than make up for them. This might work on a planet with perfectly smooth seas and perfectly regular coastlines and sea bottoms and perfectly predictable obstacles, but not ours.

Well at least the shipper wouldn't have to pay a ransom to rescue the crew. Not that I think this is going to happen. It's at least as fantastical as Amazon's drones.
With the price of the barrel ~3 times what it was 10 years ago and the huge quantity of oil needed for ocean shipping (3-4% of all oil burned), one can only wonder what will be the shipping capacity needed in the future since sending chicken to China for "processing" probably won't be in the cards.
@11, 12: Ooh, and NASAGHASTS!
This is beyond asinine. Modern cargo ships already have small crews, who are kept very busy constantly performing maintenance and checking on the status of the cargo. Even the bridge crew is vital, to keep watch and make decisions if necessary. The labor costs and support costs (sewage and foo and such) of these skeleton crews are insignificant, especially compared to the costs of even a single breakdown caused by the lack of constant maintenance, not to mention that with no crew there's no-one on site to attempt repairs.

See for example Rose George's book.
As a sailor, the idea of scores of unmanned, insensate cargo behemoths making their heedless way across the Pacific does more than 'take the romance' out of it: it takes an area now populated only with the attentive sort of humans (i.e., sailors & sea captains; no blithe little rich blondes in huge SUVs, street rats, or crack fiends) and makes of it a game of Frogger.

If they want to save money at sea shipping lines should continue to look into sail- or solar-assisted propulsion. If you get 4-6kn of your 18-23kn total speed from sail, you save that much fuel & carbon impact. The last China clippers made 16kn regularly on sail power alone.