Unmanned vessels and new opportunities for workboats

In a DNV GL oil and gas division press release on Monday, CEO Elizabeth Tørstad touted that, by “changing the focus from maximum efficiency to maximum reliability, and selecting robust processing options with built-in redundancy, (DNV/GL O&G has developed) a solution that ensures production levels and boosts the economic viability of FLNG projects.”

The press release coyly claimed that the design, called “Solitude,” is meant for a (presumably stationary) offshore processing or refining operation. However, the DNV GL press release as a whole contemplates a completely unmanned vessel — in fact, a giant LNG carrier — that would offer oil companies the ability to transport huge amounts of the gas from remote offshore oilfields to distant refineries without the burden and expense of crews.

Such a concept is so revolutionary — although maritime “drones” are in the headlines along with other types of drones — DNV GL won’t say it, but when it touts the “safety advantage” to a nonexistent crew, that’s what it means. No crew, no personal injury, no P&I liability insurance, no crew wages, no meals, no missed crew changes, etc. And in one of the computer renditions accompanying the press release, the vessel’s molded ship lines and vague outline of a wheelhouse suggest even more autonomous employment.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the concept, or that there’s any need to revisit the issues of reliability of machines vs. foibles of humans etc. when considering unmanned navigation.

We have blogged several times on the future of unmanned vessel operations, and Ms. Tørstad’s claim that “some (of the design’s technological solutions) are available today” understates the case. In fact, the technology for unmanned operation of vessels, like the takeoff-to-landing automation of European airliners, is ready now. Whether we’re ready for it is another question.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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