Wednesday, May 24, 2017

If You Can Figure Out How to Invest in Somali Pirates, Go Long

According to a piece in Power Electronics magazine, it appears that there are plans to make the world's cargo ships unmanned and autonomous.

It might be a good time to get invest in piracy on the high seas.  Is there a Horn of Africa Pirates Association - HAPA?  Association of Somali Freelance Merchant Marines?   Something like that?

I obviously joke here, but that was my first response when I read the piece.  Sure, there are sound reasons to remove the crews and make the system autonomous.  Crews take up room and add costs, taking the place of more cargo.
There are a number of obvious advantages to going crewless. Designs will eliminate the quarters, mess, stairs, doors, and just about everything else people use. One upshot of this is loads of extra space, available for more cargo. Another is a more streamlined exterior. It even enables the weight to balance out nicely. Traditional ships have a lot of weight in the stern, thanks to the bridge. The lighter center is buoyant, bending upward and requiring heavy ballast, often in the form of water, that is hauled around for no other purpose than to keep the ship level. Take away the superstructure, redistribute the weight, and it will reduce the ballast needed.
In addition to the "quarters, mess, stairs, doors, and just about everything else people use", there things like HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), food and water, and other life-sustaining systems all of which add to the demands on the ship.  Not just space, but weight and electrical power.  With the lower weight of the vessel, the lower wind resistance, and lower power requirements, analysts expect a 10 to 15% fuel savings, for a typical cargo vessel. 
Rolls-Royce concept rendering of an autonomous cargo ship. 

Compared to cars or trucks on the highways, travel on the open seas is a pretty simple problem.  Certainly there are navigation issues, but those aren't really a big concern in the era of GNSS systems (Global Navigation Satellite Systems, the combination of GPS, Galileo, Glonass and more).  Likewise there are weather concerns; in October of 2015, the cargo ship El Faro went down in the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin, but that's a rare occurrence today.  A ship's exact heading is determined by the currents, winds and other physical conditions.  All of those can be sensed onboard and adapted to.  Detecting other ships can be by onboard radar, or by radio systems.  The way ships are expected to behave around each other are spelled out in details in the Colregs - collision regulations - a modern incarnation of old, established laws.

One version of an autonomous and zero emissions ship is planned to start in the latter half of 2018, although it will be a conventional manned ship for its first year.  Its role will be shipping products from YARA’s Porsgrunn production plant to Brevik and Larvik in Norway.  Autonomous and 100% electric, YARA Birkeland will be the world’s most advanced container feeder ship.
(which doesn't look anywhere near as cool as the previous picture)

The problem with an autonomous cargo ship isn't the open sea, it's everything within a couple of miles of the port.  Big ships start slowly, stop slowly, and aren't very maneuverable.  It's tricky to maneuver one into a docking berth.  In general, large ships don't navigate into and out of ports themselves; they are brought in and out by local pilots who are very familiar with the hazards of their ports.  This generally involves tug boats and putting pilots onto the inbound or outbound ships.
One way that might look, says Levander, is a sort of hybrid. A ship on the open sea, traveling primarily straight ahead with little in its way, will be controlled by an onboard computer, with the occasional oversight of a land-based operator who may manage hundreds of different ships at once. As it comes to port, or enters a congested area, several things could happen. The remote operator could take full control, or a crew could boat out and board. 
The problem is that just as there are sound reasons to remove the crews, there are sound reasons to have armed crews onboard, as we've seen with the use of private security against Somali pirates.  As long as the ship can be controlled by having a harbor pilot come aboard, anyone could board the ship on their own and redirect it.  Fancy electronics?  Satellite links?  Intelligent control systems?   Can they take a full auto magazine from an AK and still function?  They can?  OK, what about a stick of dynamite or however much it takes to blow the control links into the sea?  The golden rule of "man makey, man breaky" applies.  Security can't be an afterthought, it needs to be designed in from the start.  I don't see a single word about that in the article. 


  1. There is a web significant national and international agreements that determine requirements for commercial shipping in many areas; one of those areas is manning. Before any international use of unmanned ships can be contemplated, there are a number of international agreements that would have to be revised, and even then it could only happen between participating countries.
    I could see a time when ships crossed the oceans unmanned and a crew was helicoptered out to them in international waters, but that time is far off. In the meantime, I suspect there will be continued automation available that will reduce manning requirements in situations that allow it.

  2. The shipping companies will do the math. The cost of ships lost to various reasons including piracy is compared to money saved by removing crews. Once the technology is mature costs to insure a ship will likely decrease as much of the insurers risk is to pay claims to the families of lost crew. If it costs less to remove crews even if an occasional ship is hijacked then that is what will happen. And there won't be any warm bodies for pirates to hold for ransom. It could be cheaper to let the ship and cargo sit than pay the pirates anything. And if there are no crews for pirates to hide behind then various militaries can bomb the shiite out of pirates and not risk boots on the ground or harming hostages. I have no doubt the actuarial experts will have these costs factored in short order.

  3. Of course, one could always rig the ship to explode spectacularly at an appropriate time if it WAS hijacked. Big >>>BOOM<<< in the port of Mogadishu would take care of a whole shipload of problems at once...

    1. My wife was saying to load the ship with armed drones. Let it self-defend.

      I hadn't even thought of blowing the ship, though. If it goes off course or remote controllers can tell it has been hijacked, just go boom.

    2. And if you time it right, there's a brand new deep water port!

  4. The reason for putting crew on ship is to fix EVERYTHING that can go wrong with the ship itself.

    1. Good point, although I wonder if they couldn't disable the ship, leave it adrift and helicopter a crew on to fix things.

      Does the law of the high seas allow anyone to claim it? "First one on board owns it!"

    2. SiGB,
      Salvage rights are not quite that simple, but close to it - My understanding is that the international standard contract when towing somebody else or rescuing their ship is 10% of the value of the ship and cargo.
      One concern with an unmanned ship, as you said, is how do you keep somebody else from taking over the ship, for any one of a variety of reasons.
      Big ships with big cargoes are REALLY expensive, and except in certain cases not explosive enough to do that on their own. For example, some Oil Tankers can cost $100 million to build and carry a cargo of $100 million or more. The really big ones already get crew and supplies helicoptered out since there are so few ports they can fit into; they go between at sea loading and unloading points until they HAVE to go into port for repairs.

  5. The easiest solution to piracy could be to have a global network of contractors to deal with boarding, and a simp,e heartbeat communication. Anything goes wrong, you just stop TX to the ship and it stops dead. Remember, most of the time the pirates either want it to stop, or re-direct it to where they can protect it from defense. An autonomous ship can't be blackmailed to the worst the pirates can do is make it stop, which is what the owners may want anyway. Then summon navy or contractors to deal with problem. If the pirates can't make it stop, you could just keep sailing (or redirect further away from their base to make dealing with them easier) and deal with the pirates they stay in a location of YOUR choosing. I think it's a good idea. Hell, with no crew, you could do all kinds of active protection to keep the pirates from getting into the spaces where they could redirect or stop the ship...electrified hatches anyone?

  6. I may be missing something here, but it seems to me that all the pirates would have to do is threaten to sink the ships. Under calm conditions, it wouldn't take much effort to slap some Semtex on the hull at the waterline (even while underway) which they could set off if their demands were not met.

    Speaking of Colregs, I am reminded of how easy it is to get run over by large ships when you are in a small boat. I've had to dodge a number of container ships and a couple of regular cargo vessels both at night and even during daylight in the 38' catamaran we sailed around the northern Caribbean some years back, before we returned to the land. Any time I saw a large vessel, I fired up our radar, not trusting our radar reflectors to be noticed by the "big guys", and of course ran the radar full-time if we were sailing at night (we had a diesel generator on board towe used when under sail alone, as well as the Yanmar diesel drives in each hull).

    Ships being operated remotely - or worse, autonomously - could be a scary possibility for small private boats plying the seven seas.

    1. I think that goes for autonomous cars and trucks as well. The opportunities for someone to be in the wrong place are just so much greater for pedestrians than even small boats that it seems inevitable that someone gets run over by an autonomous car or truck. Then the lawsuit games begin.

      With ships and the Colregs, IIRC, sailboats have the right of way due to their inherently lower ability to change direction at will. It becomes an issue of the big ship detecting you to know you get the right of way. Not that it's going to be particularly comforting as you fight to not get sucked into the propellers of the freighter than just ran over and splintered your catamaran...

      I've heard that large freighters, even with reverse thrust, can take over a mile to stop, so if the small boat can avoid them, it sounds like a worthwhile effort.