Giant cargo ships responsible for over 80% of intercontinental world trade are being transformed into remotely operated vessels. British engineering company Rolls-Royce is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA project) which brings together universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification societies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors which need to be addressed to make these self-driving, autonomous robots a reality.
Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team, which is leading the project, says that taking humans off of ships (and removing all of the human-related infrastructure, like crew quarters, heating and air conditioning, water purification and storage, etc.) would lead to ships that weigh 5 percent less and would use up to 15 percent less fuel. Additionally, the average cargo ship costs between US $3,000 and $4,000 per day in crew operating expenses alone.
The growing interest around robotic ships is easy to understand. These remotely operated vessels are expected to be safer, more efficient, and cheaper to operate:
Reduced threat posed by piracy with these vessels could be achieved as unmanned ships could be built to be very difficult to board. Access to the controls could be made unavailable and the operators at a central command could immobilize the ship or have it steam in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it. Without any crew to hold hostage, the target of piracy will also get significantly less valuable.
These ships could also come with larger cargo capacity since crew accommodating features like deck house, the crew quarters, elements of the ventilation, heating, and sewage systems can be eliminated. This will make the ship lighter and sleeker, cutting fuel consumption, reducing operating and construction costs, and facilitating designs with more space for cargo.
Critical human element in the loop is maintained by the a prototype virtual reality display system that gives a captain 360-degree views from a virtual bridge. The captain can hop from virtual bridge to virtual bridge, theoretically overseeing many different remotely operated vessels all at once.
This remote and autonomous operations could facilitate the transfer of jobs requiring high levels of education and skills to operations centers on land, making such careers more interesting to young people. This is especially so given that fewer people want to spend weeks or months at a time away from home and family as with current seafaring jobs.
The road to having a fleet of commercial remotely operated vessels traversing international waters is still a long one. This is not just about the technology challenges to overcome but also about the bureaucratic and cultural bottlenecks that should be navigated. Many questions on safety, operational guidelines and international regulations will have to be answered in the coming years.