Piracy Incidents Down

Steps taken by the international maritime community have paid off, reducing the threat of piracy in the Arabian Sea’s Gulf of Aden, according to the Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty Safety and Shipping Review 2014. The number of ships seized and hostages taken was down significantly in 2013. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), piracy at sea is at the lowest level in six years—264 attacks were recorded worldwide in 2013, a 40% drop since Somali piracy peaked in 2011. There were 15 incidents reported off Somalia in 2013, including Gulf of Aden and Red Sea incidents—down from 75 in 2012, and 237 in 2011 (including attacks attributed to Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and Oman).

But while the number of incidents in this region has gone down, piracy attacks in other areas have increased in frequency, notably Indonesia and off the west coast of Africa. While most of these Indonesian attacks remain local, low level opportunistic thefts carried out by small bands of individuals, a third of the incidents in these waters were reported in the last quarter of 2013, meaning there is potential for such attacks to escalate into a more organized piracy model unless they are controlled.

The Gulf of Guinea region accounted for 48 of the 264 incidents in 2013. Of these, Nigerian pirates and armed robbers were responsible for 31 incidents, including two hijackings, 13 vessel boardings and 13 vessels fired upon. One crew member was killed and 36 kidnapped—the highest number of Nigerian kidnappings for five years, according to the IMB.

Are Drone Cargo Ships the Next Step in Supply Chain Automation?

Rolls Royce Drone Ships

Ahoy, robots!

The $375 billion shipping industry, which carries 90% of world trade, is next in line for drones to take over—at least, that’s what Rolls-Royce Holdings is betting on. The London-based engine manufacturer’s Blue Ocean development team has already set up a virtual-reality prototype in its Norwegian office that simulates 360-degree views from a vessel’s bridge. The company hopes these advanced camera systems will eventually allow captains in control centers on land to direct crewless ships. The E.U. is funding a $4.8 million study on the technology, and researchers are preparing a prototype for simulated sea trials next year.

“A growing number of vessels are already equipped with cameras that can see at night and through fog and snow—better than the human eye, and more ships are fitted with systems to transmit large volumes of data,” said one Rolls-Royce spokesperson. “Given that the technology is in place, is now the time to move some operations ashore? Is it better to have a crew of 20 sailing in a gale in the North Sea, or say five people in a control room on shore?”

Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44% of total operating expenses for a large container ship, industry accountant and consultant Moore Stephens LLP told Bloomberg News. By loading more cargo and replacing the bridge and other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water and sewage, ships can cut costs and boost revenue, claims Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology. The ships would be 5% lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12% to 15% less fuel, he reported.

Unmanned ships would require captains to operate them remotely and people to repair and unload them in port, but the lack of crew at sea could change the landscape of piracy. Without people to take hostage, the risks would greatly reduce—as would the need for for kidnap and ransom insurance premiums. The material being transported, however, could be even more vulnerable without a human line of defense. Further, the remote operating system opens the door to digital hijacking from hackers or cybercriminals.

Currently, human error—most notably tied to fatigue—causes most maritime accidents, according to Allianz. But, as the 600,000-member International Transport Workers’ Federation is quick to point out, humans are also the first line of defense in a field plagued by unpredictable conditions. “The human element is one of the first lines of defense in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialize,” Dave Heindel, chairman of the ITF’s seafarers’ section, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Drone cargo ships would represent the latest part of a rapidly automating supply chain. As Wired pointed out, as customers’ desire for ever-more-instant gratification mounts and companies like Amazon find ways to drastically cut shipping costs with technology, consumer pressure may make this too tempting a development to pass up.