The next revolution in cargo will be the container ship drone

Look, ma, no hands.
Look, ma, no hands.
Image: Reuters/Michael Kooren
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Drones will revolutionize transportation. Driverless cars are expected to be on the streets by the end of the decade, and as discussed ad infinitum this month, Amazon wants to deliver products to your doorstep using unmanned aerial systems.

Now, the British engineering group Rolls Royce wants unmanned, remote-controlled ships to transport freight and goods across the seas.

“The idea of a remote-controlled ship is not new, it has been around for decades but the difference is the technology now exists,” Rolls Royce’s head of marine innovation Oskar Levander, told the FT in an interview (paywall). ”It is happening in other industries so it is only logical that it should happen in marine.”

When it comes to predictions about the adoption of new transformative products, technologists have been repeatedly and spectacularly wrong. But that’s usually due to them being too conservative, rather than unduly optimistic. That’s as good a reason as any to believe the drone hype.

Still, there are plenty of hurdles that need to be cleared before drones can crack the mainstream.  There’s a long list of reasons why it will be difficult for unmanned aerial drones to be used for residential product deliveries (especially by 2015,  which is Amazon’s hopeful start date), including prohibitive costs and strict regulations.

Drone cargo ships face their own obstacles, including inordinately complex international maritime laws. Yet the prospect of significant cost savings and fewer accidents might be enough to entice the industry to continue to pursue the idea.

Ships with no human crew would appear to be highly vulnerable to attacks from pirates. One way to protect them? More drones. The US has been deploying unmanned surveillance planes to ward off pirates off the coast east Africa for years. There are now even drone boats designed specifically to hunt down pirates.