by Michael Keller
It’s the near future, at night. A New Panamax cargo ship cuts through the North Atlantic and begins its traverse of the Sargasso Sea. The ship is in its regular lane on a journey from Rotterdam to the port of Los Angeles via the newly expanded locks of the Panama Canal.
Moonlight from the north illuminates the topmost layers of some 12,000 20-foot containers stacked on the ship. It’s calm seas, but unseen in the total darkness to the ship’s southwest is a rapidly developing hurricane that spun off from the west coast of Africa as a tropical wave just days before.
If there were windows on the bridge, perhaps the third mate would be peering into the night to catch a glimpse of the weather system’s outline. If there were a bridge, perhaps the second mate would be pouring over real-time weather data and navigation equipment. If there were a captain, perhaps he’d be weighing the decision to pick up speed to outrun the storm or slow down to let it pass.
But this is the new class of autonomous ships plying the world’s oceans, and none of these people or objects is aboard. A pilot monitors the ship remotely from Rotterdam and no crew are in danger. Automated decision systems informed by streams of navigation and weather data alter speed to let the main body of the hurricane pass safely in front of the ship. Neither life nor property is put at risk, and the system plugs in new operating commands to pick up speed and arrive at port on time.