The real action to date on driverless vehicles has been military (canonical ‘drones’), and commercial transport (like mining, and rail transportation, like the trains at airports). Next up: giant cargo ships.
In an age of aerial drones and driverless cars, Rolls-Royce (RR/) Holdings Plc is designing unmanned cargo ships.
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 centers to command hundreds of crewless ships.
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. They might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade, while regulatory hurdles and industry and union skepticism about cost and safety will slow global adoption, said Oskar Levander, the company’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology.
“Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,” Levander said by phone last month. “If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move.”
Crews will offer no safety advantage after ships evolve equipment for remote control, preventive maintenance and emergency back-ups, Levander said. Unmanned ships will need constant and comprehensive computer monitoring to anticipate failures in advance and “redundant” systems to kick in, similar to those on airplanes, he said.
The computers would also be constantly analyzing operations data to improve efficiency and save money, he said. Cameras and sensors can already detect obstacles in the water better than the human eye.
Human error causes most maritime accidents, often relating to fatigue, according to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty AG. Total losses are declining, with 106 in 2012, 24 percent below the 10-year average, according to the most recent data from the unit of the Munich-based insurer.
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, according to Levander.
Unmanned 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.
The end of the merchant marine, and a great backdrop for fiction: stowing away on a South Pacific transport from Vietnam, a family of six tries sneak into the US.