From Ziggy Stardust to autonomous trains…

The Badger’s currently reading ‘How we lived then’ by Norman Longmate, a book about everyday life in Great Britain during the Second World War. It cost £1 from a charity shop and it’s a fascinating read. Written in 1971, it describes what life was really like for ordinary members of the public between 1939 and 1945. If you thought things were difficult during COVID, then think again! The Badger was attracted to the book because his parents rarely spoke about their young adult lives in the war years, and because it was written in 1971 at the start of decade of turmoil, transformation, and rich personal memories.

By the 1970s, life for young adults had changed dramatically to that in the 1940s when, for example, military or civilian war service, rationing, and music from the likes of Glen Miller or Bing Crosby provided its drumbeat. In the 1970s, life for young adults was unrestrained, independent, and full of transformations and diverse music like David Bowie’s 1972 album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and many other classics of the same year. You might be wondering, at this point, how you get from 1970s books and music to autonomous trains? Well, easily as it happens, because the 1970s was also a decade of transformation for our railways and today, some 50 years later, they are undergoing transformation again driven by government infrastructure investment, huge advances in digital technology, and changing passenger dynamics following the pandemic.

In the 1970s, diesel and electric locomotives had replaced steam, electronic signalling was in its infancy, electrification was limited, ticketing meant visiting a manned ticket office at a railway station and strikes and cancelled trains were commonplace. This short 1972 film provides a simple insight to the railways and its technology of the time. As it ends, it makes a crucial point, namely that railway people were in an industry that is ‘both old and new’.

Today the railways are providing a service to passengers with powerful smartphones in their pockets, with better quality rolling stock, with self-service ticketing using machines and online facilities, and with real-time passenger information at the same time as progressing a Digital Programme deploying high-tech signalling, train control, and safety systems to increase capacity, reduce delays, and drive down costs. As this signalling piece highlights, this is a complex, difficult and slow task because the railway industry is always going to be ‘both old and new’ making transformation a perpetual process akin to re-engineering a Jumbo Jet while in flight! Nevertheless, progress towards a digital future and autonomous trains is being made.

Transformations are often constrained by workforce factors rather than technology. With train strikes imminent, it’s depressing that workforce factors still get in the way of the railway industry speedily embracing the modern, digital, increasingly autonomous, world we all inhabit. Sadly, some things don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s.

Autonomous ships…

Smart meters, smart phones, smart televisions, smart home security cameras, smart central heating, smart lighting, and smart white goods are commonplace in today’s world. We also regularly encounter smart motorways and ever-smarter vehicles as we go about our daily lives. All of this just illustrates that no aspect of our lives is immune to the relentless advance of digital technologies. However, while most public interest and mainstream media attention tends to focus on things that either do or will have a direct personal impact on the majority of us, there are many advances underway that get much less airtime. Autonomous ships seems to be one such area.

Some months ago, while examining the forecast timeline for the mass adoption of truly autonomous (driverless) cars on public highways, the Badger came across something that triggered more personal interest in progress towards autonomous ships. It was the online dashboard of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 15-metre-long research trimaran recreating the historic Mayflower voyage of 1620 from Plymouth in the UK to the USA , but with no humans on board! MAS, built by Promare and IBM, and packed with sensors, AI, and autonomous technology, has not been without problems, as you can see here. Nevertheless, it has now reached North America, all be it Halifax in Canada rather than the USA, and it’s been possible to monitor its vital signs and footage from its cameras via the online dashboard throughout the journey across the Atlantic.  

MAS’s journey will undoubtedly have added to the learning and knowledge essential for scaling up to the much larger autonomous ships of the future. Smart technology on large ships already has a lot of traction and Hyundai, for example, announced just a few days ago that it was the first to pilot a ‘large autonomous ship across the ocean. The ship was fully crewed and while much of its journey was under the control of autonomous technology, much of it was not. Realistically, the days of truly autonomous civilian shipping with no crew aboard are still some way off. As might be expected,  however,  in the military domain the development of small and large autonomous vessels for naval forces has been progressing steadily. Indeed, the USA, for example, has this year created an unmanned vessel division within its Navy, and is recognising a need to build a fleet of autonomous platforms to counter threats from other superpowers.

It’s inevitable that autonomous civilian and military ships will be a feature of life for future generations. Unlike autonomous cars and aircraft, they don’t seem to attract the same level of interest in the mainstream media and general public, which the Badger finds a little surprising given the UK is an island nation and taking a cruise holiday could one day mean travelling and living on a ship that has no crew!