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.Amazon are developing aerial drones to deliver parcels and we already have driverless cars.  Now, Rolls Royce is developing unmanned container ships.

This is product development on a major scale.  Oskar Levander is vice president of marine innovation engineering at Rolls Royce.  He is a man with vision and says “The idea of a remote-controlled ship is not new, it has been around for decades but the difference is the technology now exists”.

When Oskar proposed the idea of drone cargo ships at an industry conference last May, the audience laughed and other panellists dismissed the idea. The skeptics haven’t deterred the London-based maker of engines and turbines. “If everybody in the industry would say, ‘Yes, this is the way to go,’ ” Oskar Levander says, “then we are too late.”

Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual-reality prototype at its plant 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 thinks that the drones will be safer, cheaper, and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry. “Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,” says Orkar.

Crew costs make up about 44% of operating expenses for a large container ship, says consulting firm Moore Stephens International. Mr Levander says ships would be 5 percent lighter when empty and burn up to 15 percent less fuel if the bridge, where the crew lives, were replaced with cargo space and the electricity, air conditioning, water, and sewage systems for the crew area were eliminated.

The European Union is funding a €3.5 million ($4.8 million) study of unmanned vessels. Researchers are designing a digital prototype for simulated sea trials next year.  However, maritime operators, insurers, engineers, labour unions and regulators question whether unmanned ships could be safe and cost-effective anytime soon. “I don’t think personally that there’s a huge cost benefit in unmanned ships today,” says Tor Svensen, chief executive officer of maritime for DNV GL, the largest certifier of vessels for safety standards.

Unmanned ships are illegal under international conventions, which set minimum crew sizes. If drones don’t comply with such rules, they’d be considered unseaworthy and ineligible for insurance, says Andrew Bardot, executive officer of the International Group of P&I Clubs, whose members insure 90 percent of the global fleet.

As you would expect the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents about 600,000 seafarers, is also opposed to the idea. Dave Heindel chairman of the ITWF’s seafarers’ section said “The human element is one of the first lines of defense in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialize”.

Oskar Levander thinks otherwise.  He says that crews will offer no safety advantage once equipment improves for remote control, preventive maintenance, and emergency backups. In addition, he says, cameras and sensors can already detect obstacles in the water better than the human eye. “It’s a given that the remote-controlled ship must be as safe as today,” Oskar says. “But we actually think it can be even safer.”  He also admits that drones could be a decade away, if regulations were in place in a specific geographic area to accept them.  However, global regulations could take longer.

Oskar also has to put on his marketing hat.  Developing the ships and technology is one thing.  Getting people to buy is another.  “There is no point us developing remote-controlled ships if there isn’t a market to sell them into.”

Rolls Royce has been developing big engines and turbines for many years for planes and ships.  The marine segment of their business accounts for 16% of their turnover.



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