New technologies should assist seafarers, not eliminate them

Whenever he’s not working, it’s almost a sure bet that our friend Phil will be standing in an open field somewhere guiding his radio-controlled helicopters and planes through the air. A roofer by trade, Phil was having dinner with my wife and I recently and told us he wanted to take his hobby to the next level — operating a personal drone. “It’s pricey right now, but that’s what I want,” he announced. I had thought that drones were mainly for military use, but found out that global corporations such as Google, Domino’s Pizza and Amazon have already started testing drones for delivering merchandise. Just a few weeks ago, the international shipping giant DHL began using a small drone helicopter to deliver vital medicine to Juist, an island of around 2,000 people five miles off the coast of Germany. The age of drones has arrived.

As a kid I flew model airplanes, so the idea of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or airplane drones, seemed logical to me. But drone merchant ships? I would never have believed that anyone could have seriously considered such a thing until I read a Professional Mariner article that told of a design team with the famed Rolls-Royce company that is developing plans for a drone cargo ship (See story, PM #180). The ship would be operated by computers, monitored and controlled remotely using satellite technology by a captain sitting in an office up to thousands of miles away — without any officers or crew on board. A company vice president has stated publicly that these unmanned drone cargo ships could be a reality in less than 10 years. 

There is no doubt that advances in maritime technology have made ships safer, crews more protected and the environment less polluted. I don’t know any mariners who would relish climbing masts to furl/unfurl the sails day in and day out, or putting out to sea without an emergency position-indicating radio beacon on board the vessel. Unfortunately, since beginning my seagoing career in the 1980s, there have been times when new shipboard technology was used to cut mariners out of jobs — in my opinion, to the detriment of the crew, the ship and the environment. 

I was the second mate on a ro-ro ship carrying automobiles from Japan to the U.S. West Coast. The company had received Coast Guard approval to eliminate all the oiler positions in the crew and operate with an unmanned engine room at night, simply by having some extra sensors and monitors installed on certain pieces of engine room machinery. One of three engine officers, in rotation, responded to any nighttime alarms. At breakfast one morning the second engineer sat down across from me looking so run-down I asked if he was sick. He replied wearily, ”No, I had the duty last night, and only got a few hours sleep after going down three times to check out some alarms going off. Sensors in the engine room are a good idea, but it still takes a real human engineer to actually go down and fix the problem.” 

Not long before Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into pristine Prince William Sound, the U.S. Coast Guard approved a 15 percent reduction in the crew — and Exxon eliminated those jobs. The company had added some new sensor and monitoring technology, ostensibly enabling them to cut crewmembers with no effect on safety. Interestingly, according to the National Transportation Safety Board investigative report, one of the probable causes of the disaster was the failure of Exxon Shipping Co. to provide a “sufficient crew” for the vessel. The sensors were a good idea; the crew cutbacks were not.

While on watch on a chemical tanker working in the Gulf of Mexico just before sunrise one winter morning, we completely lost power. Lights flashed and alarms sounded as we headed right toward a drillship one point to starboard and only a few miles away. Because the engine room was unmanned at night, it was some minutes before the entire engine crew got down below to work on the problem. In the meantime the boatswain and ABs prepared the anchors for letting go, while the captain and I remained on the bridge, with me monitoring traffic and assisting with coordinating the emergency response. In my opinion, there is no way a person on shore pressing buttons could have done the work to make the necessary repairs on the chemical tanker that day. It took the efforts of the entire crew. Had we not been there, I believe a disaster on par with Deepwater Horizon could have occurred.
Besides not having crewmembers on board to deal with emergencies, drone ships have at least one other glaring vulnerability that conventional modern cargo vessels do not: the possibility of pirates or terrorists hijacking the ship by computer hacking. Even the Pentagon, bastion of U.S. military expertise, had its computer system compromised a few years ago. Hacking into a drone ship satellite communication system would be child’s play for some. These pirate-hackers controlling the vessel could maneuver it to a predetermined spot to steal all the valuable cargo. Afterward, with a couple of explosive devices hidden on board, the pirate-hackers could then send the ship back on its way to the busy port it was originally heading to — with no one the wiser. One click of the mouse at the right moment and the vessel would be destroyed, taking half the port with it. That, in my opinion, is the potential for piracy and terrorism on a drone cargo vessel.

To me, the use of drone ships is really part of a greater question facing our industry today: How many mariners does it take to safely operate a vessel? During the Civil War, there were 250 to 300 crewmembers on an oceangoing ship. In the 1950s and 1960s, my dad sailed as an able seaman on T-2 tankers that had 30 to 40 people in the crew. Today, there are 1,300-foot containerships plying the high seas with 13 crewmembers. If some people have their way, in 10 years there could be no mariners at all on a ship that size. I hope that never happens because, as it stands today, I think the risks are just too great. Using advances in technology to help mariners work more safely and efficiently is a good thing. Using that technology to continue to eliminate officers and crewmembers on board is not. 

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’    

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff