In 1349, a ghost ship ran aground near the harbor of Bergen, on the west coast of Norway. One after the other, its sailors had succumbed to the bubonic plague. The ship that had set out from England and drifted aimlessly with its dead crew and wool cargo. The only living creatures on it were rats and fleas, which made it into Norwegian soil and introduced the Scandinavian nation to the Black Death.
Seven centuries later, Norway is about to unleash onto the world a ghost ship of its own. Perhaps these are too grandiose words. For, starting in late 2018, the autonomous and crewless ship would just ply a route of 37 miles from a fertilizer factory to the port of Larvik. Global Positioning System, radar, cameras and sensors will guide the ship’s navigation through sea traffic along the fjords.
It would be easy to imagine fleets of ghost ships sailing the seas. Certainly, the technology for it already exists or is being developed apace. Yet the days of large autonomous vessels covering long distances are far off. For one thing, the Yara Birkeland —the autonomous ship being developed in Norway— costs $25 million, around three times a conventional container ship of similar dimensions. More importantly, as even the developers concede, the cost of repairs in high seas for a large autonomous ship would be catastrophically high, never mind the logistics of getting a team there.
Still, we can imagine that it will happen at some point. While a ship without a captain and sailors is easy to envision now, it is getting more difficult to conceive an economy without bosses and workers. Even when the Cold War was at its worst, ideologues on both sides of the divide would agree that economy was at the service of mankind. Yet when a nation of seafarers is beginning to build automated ghost ships, one may very well wonder about the fate that awaits a world where eventually, as in the 14th century, the only living creatures on fleets will be rats and fleas.