We have seen a real focus and push on unmanned vehicles just lately, everything from aerial drones to driver-less cars and now, Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team are developing unmanned cargo ships.

The company currently has a virtual-reality prototype at its Alesund office in Norway, which simulates a 360-degree view that would be seen from a vessel’s bridge. It is thought that one day, this type of control centre will be used to command and control hundreds of ships without the need for crews on board.

unmanned cargo ship

According to Rolls-Royce crew-less vessels would be cheaper, safer and greener. Oskar Levander, the company’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, thinks that unmanned ships could be deployed in the Baltic Sea within the next decade but are unlikely to reach a global scale due to regulatory hurdles and skepticism from the industry and unions regarding cost and safety. Yet he thinks now is the time to act.

“Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,” Levander said last month. “If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move.”

Rolls-Royce, which was once better known as a luxury car brand, now produces plane engines and turbines. It began developing designs for automated ships last year, which show the removal of the bridge structure. In its place is more cargo, therefore allowing companies to cut costs and at the same time boost revenue. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel said Levander.

However critics think too much investment is needed to make the ships safe. “I don’t think personally that there’s a huge cost-benefit in unmanned ships today, but technologically it’s possible,” said Tor Svensen, CEO of maritime for DNV GL at a conference in New York. “My prediction is that it’s not coming in the foreseeable future.”

“Can you imagine what it would be like with an unmanned vessel with cargo on board trading on the open seas? You get in enough trouble with crew on board,” said Derek Hodgson.  “There are an enormous number of hoops for it to go through before it even got onto the drawing board.”

Yet despite opposition and hostile reactions to the idea Levander remains focused and convinced that it is the way forward. “If everybody in the industry would say, ‘Yes, this is the way to go,’ then we are too late,” Levander said. “I expect ship owners to be conservative, but it will change.”

[Image via Welt]

SOURCE: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-25/rolls-royce-drone-ships-challenge-375-billion-industry-freight.html