An unmanned voyage – when everything goes well (narrative)

Beginning of the voyage

The autonomous ship Automat Seaways leaves the port of Gothenburg with 350,000 tons of paper pulp destined to Cape Town, South Africa. In the calm spring morning the pilot and the two officers from the local departure and approach service company man the bridge and tweak the 200 meter long hull around in the narrow dock.

Once underway the air at the bridge becomes more relaxed and the pilot is talking to the shore control center (SCC), this morning situated in Vigo, Spain. The SCC is testing a newly replaced satellite communication transmitter. The pilot keeps an eye on the course as the SCC puts the ship on remote mode, testing through the different communication links. The pilot gives rudder commands using his hand held VHF radio which is linked to the Vigo center which executes the commands and the pilot confirms that the ship is responding. Everything goes well and after some 40 minutes Automat Seaways is leaving the last of the outer islands and approaches the open sea and the lighthouse Trubaduren.

“All right Vigo, we are done here”, the pilot reports. “She’s all yours; keep her steady on 220 and 3 knots until we are from board.”

“220 and 3 knots. Thanks for the help and take it easy.”

The pilot switches the red handle from “Manned Bridge” to “Autonomous Control/Remote Bridge” and goes with the two officers down on deck and climbs down the ladder to the pilot boat that has come up alongside.

Meanwhile in Vigo, Spain, Captain Felipe Rodrigues is sipping on his first mug of coffee of the morning watch. He has recently taken over the control of eight autonomous ships from the East India SCC in Bangalore. Together with his two officers he has been reviewing the situation of each of the eight ships. Far up north in Scandinavia one ship has just left port and is dropping off her pilot. Captain Rodrigues is closely watching the monitor where he can see the three pilots climbing down the ladder.

“Automat Seaways, this is Gothenburg pilot”, the metallic voice is heard from the loudspeaker close to the monitor in one of the consoles.

Captain Rodrigues grabs the microphone: “Gothenburg pilot, this is Automat Seaways responding.” He looks at the chart on the screen and ranges closer in so that he can see the AIS outline of the ship and the pilot boat that is just leaving the shipside.

“Yes, Automat Seaways, we have boarded the pilot boat and are on our way. You are on your own. Bon voyage!”

But Automat Seaways is not completely unmanned yet. Down in the engine room a team of three service men are doing maintenance on the auxiliary generators. They will remain onboard for two more days and will be picked up by a service vessel as Automat Seaways passes the Dover strait. After that Automat Seaways will be completely unmanned for almost one month before she reaches the South African coast by the end of May.

Handling incidents during the voyage

15 days later. The voyage had been without incidents so far except running into a group of fishing boats outside Dakar two weeks ago. It had been early morning and still dark at her position when the radar alarm sounded in the monitoring room and warned for some scattered echoes on the 24 miles range. There were no AIS targets around so Felipe Rodrigues decided to take one of his mates with him into the situation room which looked very much like a ship bridge. Actually it was a full mission bridge simulator that had been re-built. The integrated bridge consoles contained the usual setting with two radars, ECDIS and a conning display. A large rounded screen several meters high and enclosing the bridge in 270 degrees was outside the bridge windows. On this screen a 3D visualization of all waters and coasts which the center had license for could be brought up. The linked image from the infrared and daylight cameras could also be inserted on the screen at a position synchronized with the movements of the gyro stabilized cameras mounted on a mast above the bridge of Automat Seaways. At the back of the bridge were the consoles and mimics of the engine control room with CCTV cameras of the engine room of the ship. They were all switched off now to save bandwidth for the radar and infrared TV system.

As Automat Seaways approached the group of echoes he studied the radar images coming in about once every ten seconds over the satellite link. It looked like a group of fishing vessels and coming closer he could also detect some very small echoes that he believed was the radar reflectors of the net buoys. Captain Rodrigues waited until he was about three miles from the closest vessel before he turned on the infrared camera and zoomed in. The satellite link was now very strained and the images from the camera were not of the best quality and just a few frames a second. But he managed to find the boat, and switched to still picture.

In the strange inverted gray scale of the infrared picture he could easily recognize the typical shape of an African fishing boat. He called on channel 16 both in English and in Spanish and finally got an answer back in broken English.

“Please captain, we have drifting nets in the water. Can you please make turn and pass the fishing to the east?”

“Roger that. We are turning port.”

Rodrigues had switched over to manual control and made a port turn passing well east of the group of fishing vessels. After that the ocean was empty and uneventful. They had turned off the situation room and gone back out in the monitoring room.

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