While unmanned aerial drones and Google’s self-driving cars are old news, Rolls-Royce would like to float a new concept: self-steering, unmanned cargo ships.
The UK engineering company, one of the world’s foremost suppliers to the commercial shipping industry, believes crewless, remote-controlled ships will be safer and cheaper than standard vessels. According to industry consultant Moore Stephens LLP, 44 percent of a ship’s total operating costs goes towards maintaining a crew.
“Now it is time to consider a road map to unmanned vessels of various types,” Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation, engineering and technology, said according to the BBC. “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 in a control room on shore?”
The European Union is also keen on the idea and is funding a $4.8 million project called Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN). Increases in transport volumes, growing environmental concerns and a shortage of future seafarers are challenges the EU believes unmanned ships could help overcome.
“It allows for more efficient and competitive ship operation and increases in the environmental performance of vessels,” the MUNIN website explains. “Furthermore the shore based approach offers ‘seafaring’ the possibility to become more socially sustainable by reducing the time seafarers spend away from their families.”
Simon Bennett, a spokesman for the International Chamber of Shipping, isn’t so gung-ho. Unmanned ships, he says, are currently illegal under international law and “would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory regime” if allowed.
“Apart from the safety considerations, there would also be a lot of questions from bodies such as trade unions,” he told the BBC. “While I wouldn’t dismiss it completely, realistically it is hard to see remote-controlled ships without any crew for two to three decades.”
Still, Bennett says the shipping industry is in the midst of an intense debate about computerized systems controlling ships from ashore. In the meantime, Rolls-Royce is showing off its concept designs and trying to convince the industry that unmanned vessels are the future of shipping on the high seas.