“I am not an advocate of replacing captains.” begins Mike Blake, president and founder of Palladium Technologies. “I just think they could be better used.” It’s a provocative statement to make in front of an audience of industry professionals, designers and captains, but then Blake’s presentation at the Global Superyacht Forum on the autonomous yacht of the future addresses a provocative subject.
Blake is no stranger to leading edge technology, having been involved in computers and programming since the late 1960s, and with extensive work experience in artificial intelligence robotic applications since the mid-1980s. A self-confessed driverless car fan – Blake has a Google driverless car on order for delivery in 2016 – he is well placed to lead a discussion on how technology may change the bridge of yachts to come.

Google driverless cars will be on the road in 2016

What is clear from today’s discussion is that the technology exists, and that its adoption is perhaps just a matter of time. “I see full automation – that is, with no captain on the bridge – as a reality in four or five years,” he continues. It certainly seems a feasible prediction, considering a Boeing airliner is typically only controlled by a human pilot for seven minutes in its entire flight, and an Airbus typically for just three and a half minutes. Driverless cars will be on sale and on our streets from next year, and even in yachts and shipping current tech is hinting at this future – autopilots, integrated monitoring systems, advanced bridge, radar, ECDIS and camera systems already mean we are a long way to autonomy, even if we don’t realise it.
The discussion leads to some surprising revelations – the delegates attending, when asked to come up with potential pros and cons, manage to find nearly double the number of pros to cons. The case for autonomy gets more alluring when you consider that the human decision process is based on the experience of one individual, whereas an automated process can draw on the combined knowledge and experience of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. In addition, modern communications and the internet mean that vessels can be constantly talking to each other on a cyber level.
While the debate will no doubt rage on long after today’s session, Blake is pretty clear in his belief that the future is unstoppable. “With things like AIS, the frontier is slowly closing in,” he concludes. “I see it as a snowball rolling down the hill faster and faster. And as I said, I am not advocating eliminating the captain. I’m just saying that the technology is inevitable.” It is almost driving itself, one could say.


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