futurenautics – the sentient ship

September saw the inaugural London International Shipping Week (LISW) with a wide variety of events taking place under its auspices. Heavily reported were the results of a ground-breaking project to ascertain the tangible and intangible savings directly attributable to the fitting of broadband IP solutions onto commercial ships. The project—jointly instigated by space segment provider Inmarsat, the global ship management association InterManager, and run by Stark Moore Macmillan—was able to quantify for the first time the real bottom-line savings available to ship operators from fitting broadband.

The availability of robust data demonstrating these savings caused a lot of interest, but in fact the most fascinating insight lay in the intangible savings and benefits to ship operators’—and more specifically, their attitudes to them. It is an oft-repeated mantra amongst maritime suppliers that ship operators understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing. However, those involved in the InterManager project demonstrated a far more nuanced and strategic approach to the ability of communications to drive cross-business operational efficiencies and unlock revenue potential.

Inmarsat Maritime President Frank Coles used LISW as an opportunity to give a brief sketch of what we call the ‘sentient ships’ of the future sailed by deck officers making use of wearable tech and capable of being controlled remotely. Both of his points are valid ones, but the changes will be far more fundamental. Unlike the conspicuously high-tech designs currently on offer, the next-generation ships will make use of technologies which are invisible to the naked eye.

The launch of the Kymeta flat panel antenna earlier this year is the first glimpse of how the communications technology on a ship is going to “disappear.” In the future there will be no bulky radomes with their myriad of moving parts susceptible to breakage and obsolescence. Making use of the new highthroughput satellites, using software-defined beam-steering and beam-forming, and standard business applications run via the cloud, there will be no necessity for desktop computers, software disks, miles of waterproof cabling and the knowledge onboard to constantly troubleshoot communications equipment.

Advances in nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale—is already creating science-fiction materials with astonishing properties. Already nanotech coatings could provide dry decks, boots which repel water and hull coatings which keep them permanently unfouled. But it is in new materials such as ‘buckypaper’ one tenth the weight and yet potentially 500 times stronger than steel, that huge potential lies. The lightness of this carbon nanotube derived material means that a vehicle built from it requires less fuel, offer improved structural integrity and—crucially—allows wireless data transfer through the composite material.

These space-age materials are developing alongside a massive increase in computing power. Sensors and actuators are already being employed to allow machines to monitor themselves and pre-programmed changes in the machine or its environment recognised which trigger corrective behaviour. This type of situational awareness is at the heart of what has been dubbed Manufacturing 3.0 where what are described by Siegfried Russwurm of Siemens as ‘cyber-physical systems’, will mean that each part of the finished product will know where it belongs, and will together organise themselves.

Machines with the ability to react to stimuli may cause some readers slight discomfort, but it is algorithms enabling machines to actually learn from their experiences which are the bigger picture. These types of algorithms are already being deployed in both financial trading and medical diagnostics, and it is their increasing power which will really lead to the creation of a fully sentient ship.

A ship made from buckypaper, collating the data from its sophisticated sensors and actuators wirelessly through its very fabric, communicating it seamlessly and constantly via cloud applications over an high-throughput satellite connection and with an algorithm which is constantly learning from it will be able to monitor itself, make decisions about what it has to do, and action that decision—all within the appropriate safety parameters.

No doubt for a large number within shipping that is a scenario fraught with danger, but with head-office able to access its systems in real time, if necessary the humans can take over and sail the ship remotely. But considering that the biggest cause of accidents in shipping is human error, perhaps its best to let the machines get on with it? That is until two sentient ships collide. Where the blame lies in that scenario is the next big issue shipping has to deal with.

Ship operator? Technology provider? Machinery manufacturer? Chip manufacturer? Or perhaps we will one day see a learning algorithm in the dock? And if so, will the only thing capable of adequately cross-examining it be another algorithm?


image © Ralf Gosch - Fotolia.com

Roger Adamson

I'm a former Inmarsat executive, and since 2008 I've been CEO of Stark Moore Macmillan, which produces a variety of market research on the maritime market by providing due diligence and working at a strategic level with a wide range of global clients. In 2013 our research and modelling activities led to the launch of Futurenautics, a quarterly journal and web resource investigating maritime’s technology-enabled future.