Goodbye, Prince Henry; Hello DARPA

This week witnessed an historical turning point in seafaring vessels. There hasn’t been anything like it since Prince Henry the Navigator, the first great Portuguese explorer, launched his sailing ships toward Africa six hundred years ago.

Indeed, the new oceangoing era will have no Prince Henry, no Columbus, no Magellan. Its vessels will sail the seas without captain or crew (not to mention without sails).

The future of maritime travel arrived on Monday, towed by barge from its birthplace in Oregon to the coastline off San Diego. Called Sea Hunter, it’s the world’s largest unmanned surface vessel, designed to hunt for stealthy submarines and underwater mines, courtesy of the Pentagon.

The 132-foot robot ship can travel at a speed of up to about 26 knots (30 mph) for some 10,000 nautical miles on its own. It is equipped with an array of sensors and an advanced optical system to detect other ships.

Sea Hunter is a proud product of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA; but as has been the case all along in drone technology; commercial applications are not far behind. Shipping companies from Lisbon to Shanghai are keen on the potential of such technology to cut down on operating costs and to safely pass through areas plagued by pirates.

In Britain, Rolls-Royce is already revving up its engines for the commercial phase, as it heads a European consortium to develop the technology for ships controlled from land bases. RR envisions “virtual” captains and crews able to monitor the vessels from land. No more ”steady as she goes” or “full speed ahead”; they will be able to steer their ships anywhere while leading normal home lives.

“This is happening. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” said Oskar Levander, head of innovation for Rolls’s marine unit. “We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

Not everyone is so enthused. Leaders of the more than a million members of the International Transport Workers’ Federation warn that no technology will ever be able to replace the sharp eyes and trusty hands of human seafarers to spot danger and steer to safety. Others have expressed concern about cyber-thieves hacking into the software and hijacking the shiny new boats.

But Pentagon engineers have been developing better-than-ever sensors and hacker-proof systems to counter the skeptics. During the next two years of test runs off San Diego they will work out whatever bugs there are, they say.

Maybe so. But given foreign hackers penetration of the Pentagon’s own classified files in recent years, such reassurances hardly inspire confidence. During the testing phase, Sea Hunter will have human operators as a backup. The government should insist on human backup for an indefinite time, until the unmanned systems prove they meet a high standard of reliability. This will become even more crucial as the drones are adapted for the civilian sector.

It must be acknowledged that aeronautical drones have already proven their worth in Aghanistan and Syria, and have become a staple of modern warfare. There is no reason to think that essentially the same technology cannot be applied to ships.

Aerial civilian applications — from crop dusting to pizza delivery — started up years ago. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, drones today outnumber piloted aircraft in the United States. The FAA predicts there will be some 2.5 million of them in the skies by the end of this year.

It is thought that anything that comes by parcel post now will eventually be available by unmanned delivery. The FAA is understandably concerned about midair collisions; it isn’t merely a matter of the cargo being lost, the falling debris from crashed drones puts those on the ground in danger as well.

It is likely that self-driving cars will take longer to overtake conventional vehicles. Some speculate that the cars we drive ourselves will eventually be sidelined, relegated to their own lanes like bicycle paths.

While these experts have been wrong before — if they are right — a different way of life and a different attitude will prevail. Like the spectacular transformations that came with the inventions of the locomotive and the automobile, the way we will perceive travel will change dramatically.

Yet with every new invention, comes, a new set of challenges. In a physical sense, we live very different types of lives than our ancestors did. But there is ample reason to suspect that in many ways, their lives were less stressful, more fulfilling, and probably happier.

We can only hope that mankind will use these new technologies appropriately, and ensure that ultimately it will be the wisdom given to humans by Hashem — and not robotic machines — that have the final world.