The technology exists. Now it’s a matter of safety and maritime legislation.

Figures suggest that up to 44 percent of a ship’s running costs are in the crew, so it’s not hard to see why carriers would be exploring the feasibility of autonomous ships. With big savings possible, liner operators are looking closely at coastal shipping, short-sea operations, even on-demand shipping. The idea of crewless vessels plying the waters between coastal centers and delivering payloads by drone might not be too far in the future.

Autonomous shipping will be a reality even if current concerns surrounding legality, insurance and safety cloud the waters. Remotely-operated vessels are already operating beneath the sea and on the surface in oil-and-gas and defense sectors. Cargo vessels now sometimes run sections of long voyages on autopilot, making fully autonomous vessels a logical next step.

Safety & Regulation

The real leap is to figure out how they will be integrated into mainstream logistic operations across the oceans and how safe they will be in use. “We will see a remote-controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade,” Oskar Levander, Vice President of Rolls-Royce Innovation Marine, recently told the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam.

Rolls-Royce leads the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), a project that includes universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification societies. The goal is to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors needed to make autonomous ships a reality.

The legal questions raised by crewless ships are causing headaches for regulators and potential operators. To move ahead, maritime laws and regulations will have to be reconsidered and redrafted.

The hardware and electronics needed to operate unmanned vessels already exist and look similar to the technology behind driverless cars, trucks and other land-based autonomous vehicles. At sea, the idea is that once a vessel has a “picture” of the world around it, the environment is right for clear sailing. The bigger unknown is regulatory: how such ships are to operate within the boundaries of safety and maritime legislation. Industry experts say those concerns can be addressed by adjusting existing regulation rather than adding another layer of complexity with new rules.

In addition to cutting costs, autonomous vessels will reduce the need for human interactions – and human error. There will be more room aboard for cargo. Advocates tout more efficient schedules and the likelihood that, with no crew, there will be less waste and pollution. Complex maritime operations will be handled by onshore teams that aren’t pre-occupied by the pressure of working aboard the vessel. They will be able to deal with operational issues free of distractions.

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Not If, But When

Rolls-Royce says the first autonomous vessels will be on the seas by 2020. In the next decade, the industry’s emphasis will be creating strong communications systems capable of maintaining a constant flow of real-time information from ship to shore. Expensive satellite infrastructure capable of handling huge amounts of data will be required. Early adopters and users of autonomous vessels are likely to be coastal-based operations as developers work through obstacles they might confront farther out at sea: bad weather communications and the lack of satellite coverage in certain geographic black spots on the globe. Look for crewless ferries and autonomous ships running local cargo routes between production centers and large markets.

For now, the prospect of unmanned vessels remains a bit distant. But carriers and technologists aren’t the only forces behind the push for autonomous shipping. Companies moving goods by sea want lower costs, quicker delivery and more flexibility. Retailers and other ocean shippers have come to demand faster deliveries. Manufacturers want to shorten wait times for raw materials.

Imagine

In 25 years, crewless “drone” ships will be a large percentage of cargo ocean traffic. Imagine a large drone container ship loaded with 25,000 containers arriving at the world’s two great chokepoints – the Suez or Panama canals. The ships are too big at first, but have the ability to break into seven or eight smaller capsule sections and following each other nose-to-tail through the canal, then reform into a single vessel on the other side. What about an autonomous vessel sailing the Mediterranean with aerial drones lifting containers off at intervals for deposit in Naples, Marseille, Malaga or Algiers? Fanciful today, yet feasible in 20 years.

Logistics is changing with the Internet of Things (IoT). Connectability will result in demands for faster and more environmentally friendly movement of goods and raw materials. The autonomous ship could well be the start of a drive to make shipping smaller, faster and more locally concentrated.