Shippers and shipbuilders are exploring how to make autonomous ships a reality. The benefits could be plentiful. In theory, these ships could help lower fuel use and labor costs. Some 90% of world trade is transported by sea, which means the shipping costs of our coffee, televisions, and sneakers could decline if cargo was shipped in self-steering vessels. Without quarters for crew, more cargo could be loaded onto each ship. The artificial intelligence that would steer them would also likely make these freight ships safer. A report by insurer Allianz in 2012 said that 75%-96% of casualties at sea are due to human error.
But autonomous ships would also mean that shipping companies would need to ensure that their vessels are pirate-proof, or close to it. Currently, shipping companies and their crews have to resort to other low-tech measures to protect ships and themselves from pirates, including razor wire, electric fences, and water cannons. Without a crew, the autonomous ship, which is likely to be more expensive than a conventional vessel, along with its cargo, would become the bargaining chip.
Rolls-Royce, which in addition to airplane engines, makes ship engines and other ocean-bound equipment, is researching autonomous ships, the company expects autonomous ships to carry cargo in the open ocean in about 15 years. Rolls-Royce has one solution to the pirate problem that is decidedly low-tech: design a ship that’s harder to board. Ships could be designed with no ladders and have curved edges, according to the company.
Other low-tech piracy-prevention methods, such as barbed wire, have been in use for some years now, and piracy has been on the decline as a result of stepped-up patrols.
The big challenge for shipbuilders looking to float remotely-controlled ships will be more modern pirates: hackers. How well ships can defend against a cyberattack would be key to whether they make it to sea. And there are no firm answers yet. Oscar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s president of innovation and technology in the company’s marine unit, suggests that a ship could be preprogrammed to respond to a hack by “steam[ing] in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it.” But it is reasonable to expect hackers will be one step ahead, and could find a way around that protective measure, too. Even with conventional ships, a cyber attack could be crippling as container-shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk learned in June when a cyberattack downed its online booking and other internal platforms, forcing it to halt operations at some terminals.
Since it’s such uncharted territory, shippers are starting small. Norwegian agricultural firm Yara expects its fully-electric ship to transport fertilizer by 2020, but it would only operate in Norway’s fjords, hauling fertilizer from a local plant to a port.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Rolls-Royce also manufactures luxury cars. That business is owned by BMW.