Would you trust an autonomous container ship?

Discussion in 'Boat Design' started by mitchgrunes, Apr 11, 2023.

  1. mitchgrunes
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    mitchgrunes Senior Member

    A recent news article on autonomous container ships (Crewless container ships appear on the horizon https://www.bbc.com/news/business-64875319) got me thinking about safety and liability.

    If the pilot of any large vessel, like a container ship, makes a mistake, they can do a lot of damage. It's pretty obvious they have to make a lot of important decisions, the circumstances of which cannot all be predicted. They may also have to do things like listen to news and weather forecasts, pay attention to recent changes in bottom topography, posted in a variety of sources, read written warnings, predict where boaters around them are going to go, and maybe make life and death decisions when conflicting dangers to themselves and others occur.

    I'm not sure I would trust an artificial intelligence or pre-programmed program to do all these things right. While computers can do some things very well and very quickly, AI has not yet been created that is as good as well trained human judgement - or in some cases, even basic pattern matching.

    I spent a fair amount of time working in a vaguely related field. We did statistical processing to try to identify ground covers (like crops) from radar imagery, and look for other things. I worked a bit on detecting sea ice motion, using a different type of pattern matching. I also to some extent developed software to track ships by looking at images of their wakes. Developed software to do automated map creation from aircraft or satellite radar images. Identifying objects that were statistical outliers. And similar such things. At a stretch, that could be called AI, though the algorithms I worked on were to a substantial extent human guided. Software can often do such jobs very efficiently - but there are circumstances where it fails.

    There are some areas where speed is of paramount importance in making decisions, including life threatening decisions, and many areas where computers can do things cheaper than people. But I am as reluctant to trust the decisions of software guiding a large vessel. I don't even trust an autonomous car to decide correctly between hitting a balloon, airborne litter, a child thrown wad of paper, foil, or snowball, an open pothole, a hailstone, another car, or a person, let alone reading road signs, and following the directions of road crews, police officers, etc.

    The impact of a badly piloted container ship could be a lot worse than what one car could do.

    To say nothing of something like an autonomous oil tanker, which can do a lot of environmental damage, and is also attractive to pirates. Now that I think of it, container ships also carry valuable things.

    And that's assuming that the people who write or guide the autonomous ship are benign. Terrorists could do a lot of harm with something that big.

    Any thoughts on this? Are autonomous container ships a good idea at this point in time?
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2023
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  2. mitchgrunes
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    mitchgrunes Senior Member

    They say
    Is that good enough?

    And would that be applied in all such applications? There are also times when radio communications at sea break down due to atmospheric or space weather...
  3. comfisherman
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    comfisherman Senior Member

    I've spent time around them on the open ocean.... I don't trust manned ones either.... they go through unimak full throttle eyes closed as it is.

    Still gonna need onboard maintenence and repair.
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  4. jehardiman
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    jehardiman Senior Member

    Rules 2 and 5 of the COLREGS.
  5. mitchgrunes
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    mitchgrunes Senior Member

    I could have mentioned that objects can also obstruct radio communications (as Marconi noticed when a ship got in the way of his wireless link) - potentially including an object the ship could run into. For that matter, terrorists and pirates, or mischievous children (is there a difference? :)) could perhaps use drones or remotely piloted vessels (or perhaps their own ship) to fence in and stop or control an autonomous vessel, and maybe use metalized inflatable balloons or something similar to obstruct remote piloting.

    For that matter, a few people could use cheap powered hang gliders or ultralight aircraft to land on the decks, and steal stuff or sabotage the vessel. They could do so on vessels with crews too, but then they need to worry about what the crews would do.

    Sabotage and piracy, let alone mischievous children!, are not things that ships should have to be designed to deal with - but in the real world, they sometimes do.

    You mean Unimak Pass? I had to look it up. I wouldn't have guessed people would want to take big ships through a narrow straight with the potential for bad weather, but the all knowing Internet says they often do - and oil tankers too.

    How do you know they are "eyes closed"? Maybe they just figure little ships will get out of their way.
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  6. comfisherman
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    comfisherman Senior Member

    Unimak is a veritable highway with the way the currents go. We fish either side of the pass for cod and halibut, the shipping lane is wide and we stay out of it, even so they always managed to get in our gear. I'd say one out of 10 respond on radio I'd swear they are unmanned already. The car carriers are the most impressive, they are shockingly fast and look like a cliff traveling by.

    Seems like it'd every 5 or so years one gets pummeled pretty good in transit and looses some vans, but the fuel savings must make it worth it. Considering how remote it is, the amount of shipping traffic is pretty amazing.

    Have horrid memories being in the middle in rough weather at night on a small boat cutting from Dutch to king Cove. Felt like scaled up frogger.
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  7. Kayakmarathon
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    Kayakmarathon Senior Member

    Navigating a cargo ship is a control system problem, not AI. Enough rules can be written to deal with use cases. Loss of comms or mechanical failure for X hours can be interpreted as SOS. After a few ships become disabled and repair teams deployed, shipping companies will begin to re-evaluate the risks of full automation.
  8. BlueBell
    Joined: May 2017
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    BlueBell . . . _ _ _ . . . _ _ _

    Would I trust an autonomous container ship?
    No, but I wouldn't (and don't) trust a manned one either.

    I can, however, see the day where I might trust an autonomous over a manned one.
    But I suspect that day is a long, long way off in reality.

  9. Ike
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    Ike Senior Member

    No. I wouldn't trust an autonomous ship. 4 years of sea time taught me right away that never assume that the other ship is going to do what they are supposed to do. And as was said by jehardiman, an autonomous ship is immediately in violation of rule 2 and 5 of the COLREGs. especially rule 5.

    Rule 5 Look-out . Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

    How do you do that on an autonomous ship?
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