In the wake of developments in the areas of self-driving cars and unmanned aerial drones, new software-driven vehicles may soon be coming to the sea as well as land and air. Rolls-Royce Holdings recently announced that it is developing unmanned drone ships in an attempt to cut costs and pollution in the $375 billion overseas shipping industry that accounts for around 90 percent of world trade. At the same time, the move will face considerable regulatory hurdles, and, similar to the push toward self-driving cars, important questions about the reliability of on-board systems.
The push for unmanned ships makes sense, according to Rolls-Royce, which notes that crew costs currently amount to around 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship. In addition to cutting these costs, replacing many of the crew facilities on the ship could add more space for cargo, reduce ship weights by around 5 percent and cut fuel use by 12 to 15 percent, Oskar Levander, the company's vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, told Bloomberg. The plans would entail ships being manned from remote, on-land control centers, similar to aerial drones.
"Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction," Levander told the publication. "If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move."
Right now, unmanned ships are illegal under international rules that set requirements for minimum crews, according to Simon Bennett, a spokesman for industry association International Chamber of Shipping. He told Bloomberg that the organization is not seriously considering the issue, and a spokeswoman for the International Maritime Organization said it had not received any proposals yet on unmanned ships. The International Transport Workers' Federation, a union that represents around 600,000 sailors worldwide, criticized the initiative, noting that a human element was the first line of defense against mechanical failures and the sudden changes the sea could entail.
Making it reliable
Levander noted that unmanned ships will need to have extensive monitoring systems and plenty of redundancies. He added that data from cameras and sensors can be used to improve performance, and, in cases such as detecting obstacles, are already more effective than the human eye.
"It's a given that the remote-controlled ship must be as safe as today," he told Bloomberg. "But we actually think it can be even much safer than today."
In an article for IEEE Spectrum, contributor Evan Ackerman argued that much of the current risk in maritime accidents stems from humans themselves, and he suggested that software could make ships much safer and more reliable, in part because – at the very least – computer errors occur in predictable patterns. He compared the initiative to self-driving cars and argued that the ocean could probably be modeled as accurately as the chaos of rush hour traffic, for instance.
"We just have to get over the knee-jerk reaction that humans can do a better job at it than an autonomous system," he wrote.
Winning that battle of perceptions won't be easy: Self-driving cars have been the subject of protracted legal debates and still appear to be years away from effecting any sort of regulatory changes, despite a long development history. In part, regulators will want to be assured that software is error-free. As companies develop unmanned projects of any kind, including ships, the use of source code analysis tools to catch and eliminate errors will be essential in generating public approval, as well as in preparing for compliance with any future coding standards. And in any instance of new ways to apply software to the physical world, new regulatory frameworks and coding standards are almost a given.
For the time being, the prospect of drone ships may still be a long way away, though. Levander told Bloomberg that his comments at an industry conference last year were widely dismissed, but he also noted that unanimous support wasn't necessary for change to begin to happen. Ackerman noted that the transition would likely follow the course of Google's experiments with self-driving cars, requiring a human presence on board ships while teleoperation functions were tested. Regardless of what happens next, the Rolls-Royce announcement could be an important step in improving software adoption in various industries.
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