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    Re: Autonomous ships are coming.
    From: Jeremy C
    Date: 2018 Apr 24, 23:23 -0700

    Hi Lu,

    A topic dear to my heart as you might imagine.  The trouble with RoR situations is that people don't follow the rules, especially fishing boats and other small craft that, without AIS, aren't detectable at range.  The proposed solution is to have remote pilots handing ships from ashore, similar to drones.  What might happen is the sensors on the ship might detect a dangerous situation developing and call for a human to handle the situation remotely and make the final call.  Simple situations like 2 ships crossing mid-ocean, can be handled automatically.

      To be honest, a small boat anywhere near the coast should take pains to avoid large ships no matter what the RoR say.  We just can't turn effectively or stop, and even when we do, it causes all sorts of problems with other vessels and we can run aground much more easily than a small boat.  While there may be many big ships who don't keep a proper watch, small fiberglass boats are generally not detectable on our radars at much more than 4 miles unless it's very calm.  In heavy seas I've even never managed to get a radar plot on a small boat.  Since it takes 6 minutes or so to get a good plot once we detect you, we are getting pretty close even if I am aware of you.  AIS increases that detection range to 30-40 miles and is easy to determine CPA (it's basically instantaneous).  My advice is to get an AIS, it's as important, or more so, than a VHF radio.

    The pilotage issue is a good one as well, and I don't know if they have an answer to that.  The pilots don't generally follow a voyage plan, especially in a river since it changes almost daily.  What will probably happen is that there will be a pilotage/docking team that has to board the ship. This will include the conning officer, helmsperson, line handling gang, and an engineering team to monitor the plant.  They will take over from the remote operators and guide the ship in.  Of course there will have to be some sort of standardization for the equipment settings to be able to handle the different ships.  The legal liability will also be a huge hurdle.  Right now they can hang the Master by the yardarm, even if the pilot makes the mistake.  If there is no Master, who takes the responisiblity, the pilot?  That's going to be a hard battle to fight.  

    My major concern is actually the comms and engineering side.  Control could easily be taken by hackers and there are too many little things to break on a ship that would spell disaster.  On the engineering side here's a good example.  A salt water line to the ME cooler fails with a 2 cm hole due to erosion.  Water pressure in the system doesn't drop significantly, but major flooding commences.  Bilge alarms start automated pumping processes, but they can't keep up with the water ingress.  The vessel starts to sink.  Remote operators may detect the problem with cameras and shut down the cooling system by remotely closing the valve.  The flooding stops, but now the ME is down and the ship is floating in the middle of the ocean, disabled.  A crew could patch or replace the pipe.  The automated ship is down until they can get someone aboard the fix the problem.  

    In the end the crew size of ships will continue to decrease with increased automation, but until we have repair robots like Star Wars' R2-D2 that can actually fix problems at sea, we will always need a crew of some sort.  Automated ships on very short runs may be worth it to some degree, but there will have to be human oversight to make sure that they don't run into trouble, including running over that fishing boat who thinks it's good luck to cross a ship's bow at close range.

    Jeremy

       
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