Self-Driving Ships: (No) Sailors OverBoard – 9/6/16

Self-driving cars may get more attention in the news, but their cousins in the water are also threatening a revolution in nautical transport.

Increases in offshore bandwidth are allowing ship designers, their operators, and regulators to plan for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with the most minimal of skeleton crews: the ship itself. Ship operators believe more automation will enable them to optimize ship use, including cutting fuel consumption, by removing equipment and living quarters needed by sailors.

British engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative. It foresees the potential to use technologies developed for self-driving cars and airlines to improve ships and allow for autonomous operations on open seas. Much like driverless vehicles on land, unmanned ships would use infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras and laser sensors to monitor their surroundings and send data to command centers. Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce’s marine unit, claimed that unmanned shipping could cut transport costs by 22%, mostly due to lower labor costs and greater fuel efficiency.

Testing has already begun. The Stella ferry has been equipped with sensors to test the concept of autonomous operation and next-generation satellite fleets are set to make ship-to-shore data transfers cheaper than ever. Inmarsat PLC recently launched its Fleet Xpress service aimed at that purpose.

Automating shipping faces safety, security, navigational and legal challenges in crewless container ships, though. Currently, the International Maritime Organization, the UN body overseeing global shipping, prohibits ship operations without crew, and defends the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requiring all ships to be “sufficiently and efficiently manned.”

Safety rules for nautical transport have changed over time in response to new technologies like electronic charts and automatic identification systems, but it is unclear how new rules will account for security issues like piracy and the rescue of distressed ships.

An operational proof-of-concept ship likely won’t appear sooner than 2020 with industry-wide use of self-driving ships is not expected until at least 2030. Still, it looks as though the days of ghost ships criss-crossing the seas is not too far off.

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