It’s a surreal thought: fleets of giant cargo ships sailing in the ocean without actual sailors. Yet with driverless planes, trains, and automobiles already a reality, why not an unmanned boat?
Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean development team is working on such a prototype to revolutionize the $375 billion cargo industry. The London-based company is creating a system in which captains would steer ships from onshore command centers. It could lower fuel and employee costs by reducing or eliminating a crew and the weight of the systems that support them, saving thousands of dollars per day.
Guided by autopilot systems while far offshore, remote-controlled ships would have a “safe” mode to shut down the engine, drop anchor, and await help in emergencies, says Oskar Levander, vice president of marine engineering and technology for Rolls-Royce.
The technology is a decade or more away from implementation, though it could first be used in ferryboats connected by a guide wire over a short distance, Levander says. Much of the groundwork for remote-controlled ships is done, since many ships are already equipped with redundancies like two engines and auto-pilot, as well as cameras that see the ocean and obstacles far better than human eyesight. In a remotely controlled ship, a system could be in place to automatically switch the secondary engine on when the primary engine falters. But industry pros are unconvinced.
Perhaps in the future unmanned vessels could be feasible, says Gemma Wilkie, a spokesperson for the Baltic and International Maritime Council, an organization based in Bagsvaerd, Denmark, whose members control 65 percent of the global shipping fleet.
“At the moment it would not be legal to send out a ship without people on board to carry out the watch. This would require a change of shipping conventions at an international level,” Wilkie says. “[But] how would you protect ships from piracy in open seas? If there was a technical or mechanical failure in the middle of the Atlantic, the logistical problems of getting to the ship are huge.”
The International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents 600,000 seafarers, is not surprisingly against unmanned ships. Dave Heindel, chair of ITF’s seafarers’ section, says such a system could never replace the eyes, ears, and thought processes of professional seafarers.
“The entire industry agrees that it isn’t going to happen. You just don’t put highly valuable cargoes—some of them dangerous and hazardous—in vehicles that move more slowly than those used by criminals,” he says.
Whether drone ships become reality, efforts to create them dovetail with other high-tech progress. Innovations likely will spill over, with similar technology developed for ships coming ashore. Here’s why:
Self-driven vehicles make sense. Everyone has heard of drone planes, but personal rapid transit? The self-driven, small vehicle people transporters at London’s Heathrow Airport are so successful that Heathrow is expanding the system, while three others exist worldwide, with more coming. Automobiles now park themselves, and trains travel without an engineer. Increasingly, technology is doing the driving.
Systems are improving. Mostly, a cargo ship captain isn’t guiding the ship; he’s doing administrative work, Levander said. Cameras see through fog and help guide a ship, but future cameras could hover above the ship for a better view, rather than being on the bridge. Using remote control, a captain could steer the ship (and other ships) from land, while another worker handles paperwork.
Removing the crew from a ship could free cargo space and reduce pollution, with no need for heating and other energy systems that support seafarers.
Increased connectivity is inevitable. Remote-controlled cargo ships would require constant computer monitoring to run systems, troubleshoot, and make repairs and corrections. But a majority of ship accidents are caused by human error, which could be eliminated. The change will be gradual, Levander says.
“Today, you have two people on the bridge of a cargo ship. Why not do the job of one remotely first, before going to an unmanned ship?” he says.
A separate, European Union-led effort — the Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence Project – also intends to develop its own autonomous ship.
Original article written by Jonathan Barnes and published on Forbes PTCVoice.