MILITARY drones already fly frequent missions and civilian operations using unmanned aircraft are coming. Driverless cars are clocking up thousands of test miles. So why not let remote-controlled ships set sail without a crew? Indeed, the maritime industry has started to think about what would be required to launch a latter-day Marie Céleste.
Ships, like aircraft and cars, are increasingly controlled by electronic systems, which makes automation easier. The bridges of some modern vessels are now more likely to contain computer screens and joysticks than engine telegraphs and a giant ship’s wheel. The latest supply ships serving the offshore oil and gas industry in the North Sea, for instance, use dynamic positioning systems which collect data from satellites, gyrocompasses, and wind and motion sensors to automatically hold their position when transferring cargo (also done by remote control) to and from platforms, even in the heaviest of swells.