In the last decade, research into
the use of unmanned computer-controlled merchant ships is gaining momentum. In
the meantime, small drones operated by wind and sun cross the oceans and
collect measurement results for climate research. Elsewhere, simulations are
used extensively to gather data on the possibilities of transporting
fully-fledged merchant ships without crew. It is typical for the belief in
technology that here intermediate steps are simply skipped.
Let’s take a look at aviation: In
the early 1950s, a propeller giant like the Boeing 337 Stratocruiser was flown
across the Atlantic Ocean with one in six men. In the 1970s, this number was
reduced to three people. The 1990s finally brought the two-man crew, who today
master all distances in almost every jet. However, a modern airliner such as
the Airbus A-321 Neo can make its way from take-off to landing almost without
human intervention. The pilots tend to monitor and communicate with the ground
control centers. In case of emergency, of course, they intervene and land a
plane purely manually. This has been made possible by sophisticated flight
management systems and autopilots that can control almost every flight phase.
The shipping is actually already here.
It is actually no longer necessary,
for example, to let a bulk carrier with a crew of between 14 and 25 sailors.
Machine, control and monitoring of the course and the environment are already
automated to the extent that a watcher actually only “monitors”. He
does not manually control the ship and does not turn on or off any essential
systems of the drive. The machine crew today is essentially a maintenance team
and the deck people are flatly speaking mostly rust fighters. In principle,
such a ship could be driven by five crew members. Three of them control the
ship in the wake turn from a cockpit, in which all data flow together. Another
crew member would be some kind of on-board technician for emergency repairs and
the fifth would take care of the physical well-being and quarters of the rest.
This would not only bring
considerable advantages in the world of operating costs. Five people can be
rescued much faster and easier in an emergency than a larger number. They can
also more easily get themselves to safety in case of a pirate attack in a shelter
– a very concrete danger in some areas today. They consume less space and eat
less than today’s crew. In addition, seafaring work today is generally less
amusing than it was decades ago. It would perhaps be a good deed to abolish the
suffering of the “Cargonauts”, some of whom have to live on board for
years with a meagre salary.
Now a larger crew is maintaining the
ship during the voyage. This work includes not only repairs that are necessary
for the ship to be able to sail, but also the daily fight against rust and
decay. Today’s merchant ships have not been designed to be operated for years
without constant care. But you can, if you design the ship accordingly.
This is what happens with offshore
buildings. A wind turbine foundation, for example, is planned for a certain
annual rust removal, because nobody can repaint it every five years after it
has been assembled in a dock. Of course, this is also possible on a ship that
experiences its capitalally important life period in the first 12 to 15 years anyway.
It is often scrapped after about 20 years. Modern paints and coatings can
considerably reduce the rusting of the steel. Care is therefore no longer an
What else does a large crew do? It
helps to moor. But why shouldn’t you bring a mooring crew on board in parallel
to the pilot approaching the port anyway? The port service providers would
certainly be grateful. In the offshore industry, the transfer of larger crews
at sea has been practised for decades. There are therefore few arguments against
not sending new merchant ships from certain sectors on their voyages with at
least a very small crew. However, the step towards an unmanned cargo ship is
perhaps still a little too far planned in our time. In addition to the legal
problems, the technology is perhaps still unable to cope with any real
situation at sea. A few people should perhaps still be allowed to stay on