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The Controversy of Unmanned Cargo Ships

Written By Briton Ryle

Posted February 27, 2014

Rolls-Royce Drone Cargo Ships

It was certainly a logical next step. We have unmanned aerial drones, unmanned self-driving cars, and now even on the high seas we have unmanned, self-navigating ships!

Rolls Royce on the London Stock Exchange (LSE: RR) – famous for its powerful aircraft engines and the most luxurious automobiles in the world – is now taking its technological innovations out to sea.

The company’s Blue Ocean Development team is working on prototypes of crewless cargo container ships that are remote controlled by captains from a control center based in Alesund, Norway.

But what will the impact of these unmanned ships be on the global cargo freight industry? As intriguing as the concept may be, it may not float if a number of developing nations have anything to do with it.

USVs Cause a Splash

The benefits that USVs – or unmanned seafaring vessels – will have on the shipping industry will be plenty. Without crewpersons, ship towers and other life supporting structures likes dorms, kitchens and refrigerators will not be necessary, and neither will the central command centers located on their tops. The simpler ship design is estimated to reduce cargo shipbuilding costs by some 25 to 30%.

The absence of these structures would also free up space for additional cargo containers, perhaps as much as 10% more, increasing the revenues from each oceanic crossing. The new USVs would also be cleaner on the environment, reducing their pollution emissions as heating and other systems catering to human comforts are not necessary. Solar panel arrays could also be installed above the top layer of containers to harness the sun’s energy on trans-ocean journeys where ships travel the wide open sea for weeks at a time.

Further costs would be saved on manpower, as total employees sink to just a few qualified captains at the land-based control centers, since onboard crews account for over 40% of expenses. A team of just 2 or 3 captains can control over a dozen mid-ocean ships at the same time, while another team each navigates a single ship at a time when arriving in port.

Add it all together and you have cheaper ship building, increased revenues from the extra container space, and cheaper costs from no crew.

But this last point – no crew – has many groups aiming to torpedo the project before it ever sets sail.

Safety and Regulation Concerns

The primary concern, as with any new technology, is safety. “The potential savings don’t justify the investments that would be needed to make unmanned ships safe,” Tor Svensen, chief executive officer of maritime for DNV GL, explained. “I don’t think personally that there’s a huge cost-benefit in unmanned ships today, but technologically it’s possible,” he concluded.

The International Association of Classification Societies in London hasn’t yet to outline safety guidelines or regulations for unmanned ships, which would require years of preparation.

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

One of the first hoops to jump through is that currently unmanned ships are illegal. No ship is permitted to move in the water without persons on board. As such, USVs would not be eligible for insurance coverage, and until regulations change are pretty much stranded in drydock.

Further concerns arise in emergency situations in which key computer systems fail. The absence of anyone onboard to take control in such events could be exceptionally dangerous should an out of control ship ram into other ships, docks or port facilities.

Of course, one benefit of USVs is that pirates would certainly have a harder time seizing control of them. There would be no way for them to steer the vessel, nor would there be any persons onboard to hold hostage.

However, automation presents plenty of opportunity for computer hacking organizations to take control of entire ships by breaking into computer systems. Whenever crime becomes more challenging, you can be sure criminals will rise to the challenge.

Opposition from Foreign Nations

Yet possibly the stiffest opposition to the project could come from developing countries, where the vast majority of cargo ships are registered and operated. For such nations as the Philippines, Panama and dozens other, seafaring labor is pretty much their domain.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation union of some 600,000 of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, is certainly none to thrilled.

“It cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers,” ITF chairman

Dave Heindel cautioned in an e-mailed statement. “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. The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined.”

Insurance companies are also expected to voice their opposition, as the potential for accidents rise with the advent of any new technology, especially automation.

Yet experts believe it is only a matter of time before this new technology is widely accepted. And given the lengthy lead time required to fully develop the new systems, developers like Rolls Royce and others need to start now. You can’t wait for a warm reception to come first, which will likely never come before the technology is demonstrable.

“If everybody in the industry would say, ‘Yes, this is the way to go,’ then we are too late,” Rolls Royce vice president of innovation in marine engineering Oskar Levander concluded. “I expect ship owners to be conservative, but it will change,” he expressed his optimism.

Joseph Cafariello