Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual-reality prototype at its office in Alesund, Norway, that simulates 360-degree views from a vessel’s bridge. Eventually, the London-based manufacturer of engines and turbines says, captains on dry land will use similar control centres’ to command hundreds of crewless ships.
Rolls Royce say Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade. They might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade.
While the idea of automated ships was first considered decades ago, Rolls-Royce started developing designs last year.
The company’s schematics show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the bridge structure where the crew lives. By replacing the bridge along with the other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water and sewage.
It is thought that with more cargo, container ships can cut costs and boost revenue. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation, the union representing about 600,000 of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, is opposed they say
“It cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers, The human element is one of the first lines of defence in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialize. The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined.”
Levander of Rolls-Royce said the transition will happen gradually as computers increase their role in navigation and operations. Container ships and dry-bulk carriers will probably be the first to forgo crews, he said. Tankers hauling hazardous materials such as oil and liquefied natural gas will probably remain manned longer because of the perception that having people on board is safer, he said.
Unmanned ships would also reduce risks such as piracy, since there would be no hostages to capture, Levander said. It would also eliminate liability for repatriating sailors when owners run out of money or abandon crews, which has stranded at least 2,379 people in the past decade.
Drone ships would become vulnerable to a different kind of hijacking: from computer hackers. While the technology may never be fully secure, it needs to be so difficult to break that it’s not worth the effort, said Oskar Levander, Roll Royce vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology.
Unmanned container ships would still require captains to operate them remotely and people to repair and unload them in port. These workers would have better quality of life compared with working at sea, Levander said. “Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction.”