Uncrewed marine vessels promise to make the shipping sector safer and wide open to new business opportunities

No sailor need ever get seasick or washed overboard again in a future where unmanned ‘drone’ ship technology rules the waves. The companies leading the development of autonomous and remote-controlled commercial vessels say the arrival of maritime drones will have a hugely disruptive impact on the shipping sector, creating major new business opportunities.

“We believe autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry,” says Oskar Levander, the vice president of Rolls-Royce’s Innovation – Marine department, which is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) involving several companies and Finnish universities.

“As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”

A combination of radar, lasers and computer technology make it possible for ships to guide themselves, with captains at the ready on distant virtual bridges in case of emergency or to fine-tune complex maneuvers.

All at sea how drone ships will disrupt our oceans

How a land-based control center for automated ships might look, according to Rolls Royce. Photo: Rolls Royce

But what advantages would drone ships offer? Technology does not advance simply to save unfortunate human beings from their onerous tasks, whether that be soldiering, shining shoes or manning a ship amid a storm on the high seas. Somewhere, there needs to be a favorable impact on a bottom line.

Rolls-Royce believes high-tech, autonomous craft will be a game changer. Constant real-time remote monitoring of vessels worldwide will see ships become more closely integrated into logistics or supply chains, enabling global companies to focus on using a whole fleet to best effect, generating cost savings and improving revenue generation, the company says. “This has the potential to create new shipping services, such as online cargo service marketplaces. Some of these services will support existing players in the market and others will be more disruptive – allowing new players to enter and potentially capture a significant share of business in the same way as Uber, Spotify and Airbnb have done in other industries.”

A bit of hard graft

What kind of ships will the first uncrewed craft be? Before robot vessels start filling maritime traffic lanes en masse to move the world’s goods smoothly from port to port, engineers suggest that automated ships will have to prove their mettle doing some of the hard stuff.

“Initial uses will be for seafloor surveys; pipeline route mapping and inspection; stand-by and fire-fighting duties; and on-demand cargo delivery to offshore installations and ships at sea, just to name a few,” says a spokeswoman for Kongsberg Maritime, which is already designing what it hopes will become the world’s first fully automated vessel – the Hrönn – with UK firm Automated Ships. The Hrönn is expected to enter service in late 2018 after testing in Trondheim Fjord, Norway.

A virtual rendering of Hrönn, which could become the world’s first drone ship by 2018. Image: Kongsberg Maritime

Rolls-Royce’s Levander thinks tugs and road ferries, the kind that go back and forth across rivers or bays, are likely early uses of uncrewed technology. “These types of vessels are most likely to fall under the control of individual flag states. These have the capacity to make special dispensation for their operation.”

Cruising without crews

Rolls-Royce envisages that the first stage of its project will involve a remotely operated vessel in local waters, to be in operation by 2020. “By 2025 we hope to have a remotely operated uncrewed vessel at open sea and five years after that we expect unmanned ocean-going vessels to be a common sight on the high seas.”

Developers see a range of different vessel types. Some could be completely uncrewed and look radically different from current vessels; others may combine technologies, sailing autonomously in open water and being remotely controlled where more advanced maneuvers are required. Others, such as cruise ships, are always likely to need some crew members if only in a customer service and safety capacity.

With no need for a deckhouse to hold the crew, the designs of drone ships could be more hydrodynamic and less wind resistant, thus making them more power efficient. They could also be much safer. According to a 2012 report published by insurance company Allianz, between 75% and 96% of marine accidents are caused by human error. “This is often a result of fatigue. Remote controlled and autonomous ships don’t get tired and will reduce the risk of injury and even death among ships’ crews and the potential loss or damage of valuable assets.”

As we snuggle up in our beds on a stormy night, who will spare a thought for the drone ships battling the elements far out to sea?

 **Written by: The Report Company – James Badcock for IE University