Rolls-Royce is designing unmanned cargo ships. Control centers will 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.
Researchers are preparing the prototype for simulated sea trials to assess the costs and benefits, which will finish next year
The company’s schematics show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the bridge structure where the crew lives. By replacing the bridge — along with the other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water and sewage — with more cargo, ships can cut costs and boost revenue. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel.
Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship.
Unmanned ships are currently illegal under international conventions that set minimum crew requirements, said Simon Bennett, a spokesman for the London-based International Chamber of Shipping, an industry association representing more than 80 percent of the global fleet.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation, the union representing about 600,000 of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, is opposed.
It’s a given that the remote-controlled ship must be as safe as today,” Levander said. “But we actually think it can be even much safer than today.”
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.