Automated cargo ships: New era in freight is on the horizon

Automated cargo ships: New era in freight is on the horizon article image

Rolls Royce has revealed ground-breaking plans to replace cargo ships with crewless “drone boats” controlled remotely.

And the company says fully automated ships could soon follow.

The firm is developing a “virtual deck” in Norway that would allow captains to remotely command ships anywhere in the world.

Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade, Rolls-Royce says.

Rolls-Royce has already begun the process of designing giant drone ships able to shuttle cargo across the ocean minus a single solitary human being on board.

The UK engineering group's Blue Ocean marine innovation department have announced the concept of the robot vessels they believe would be able to carry more cargo, cut costs, be safer and produce less pollution.

Cameras would beam 360-degree views from the drone ship back to operators based in a virtual bridge VR system in Norway navigating the vessel remotely to steer them to their destinations.

Cheaper to build and maintain

Talks have begun over any regulatory obstacles and potential perceived hurdles and Rolls Royce is optimistic the drone ships will be operational in the next 10 years.

The company says the crewless ships would be cheaper to build and maintain.

“Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable,” it says.

“Eliminate or reduce the need for people, and vessels could be radically simplified, reducing construction costs.

“We think it is time to consider a roadmap to unmanned vessels of various types.”

Rolls-Royce calls the new program the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), and it recently presented a whitepaper outlining the tech behind the ships at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam.


The project has the support of ship owners and operators.

“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when,” said Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation – Marine. “The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored.

“We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

Modern cargo ships are already manned by extremely small crews, and in many ways the jump to automation is easier for large ships than it would be for cars.

Little risk of collision

Apart from leaving and entering port, much of the ships’ time is spent at sea where there are few obstacles and little risk of colliding into objects (icebergs notwithstanding).

Full automation may not be arriving in the immediate future, but Rolls-Royce’s remote control project will already offer many of the same benefits, as there would be no need to support crews onboard for weeks at a time. It would also be possible for one person to pilot multiple ships at once, further reducing the number of actual crew needed to operate a fleet.

A future unmanned ship could resemble some of the most advanced combat drones. It would sport infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras and laser sensors to monitor its surroundings.

Mr Levander said moving toward greater autonomy and unmanned shipping could cut transport costs by 22 percent.

The bulk would come from lower staff costs, though such vessels also would be more fuel efficient by eliminating the need to carry equipment to support people onboard.


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