Rolls-Royce is getting into the business of drone ships in a big way

Ships are the new drones.
Ships are the new drones.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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Ships, at this point, carry 90% of the world’s trade. They also carry people—captains and crew who, inconveniently, tend to require food, water, sleep, electricity, and sewage systems to live comfortably aboard a floating vessel. Supporting these needs, Bloomberg News reports, costs more than $3,000 a day—accounting for, overall, roughly 44% of the total operating expenses for a large container ship.

But what if you could avoid those costs? What if you could ship the stuff… without also shipping the people?

That dream—”drone ships,” let’s call it—has been around for decades. Now, though, it’s being pursued in earnest. By Rolls-Royce. The company (which, in addition to its iconic cars, also manufactures plane engines and turbines) began developing designs for seafaring drones last year as a safer, cleaner, and more cost-effective means of transporting goods across the oceans. The vessels, according to Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, would be 5% lighter than a traditional ship before they take cargo. They would also, crucially, burn 12% to 15% less fuel. The high-tech ghost ships, Rolls-Royce tells Bloomberg, could be operating in regions like the Baltic Sea “within a decade.”

The ships would be operated much like unmanned planes are: via control centers that use virtual-reality simulations of a ship’s bridge. Much of the work Rolls-Royce is doing at this point involves developing cameras and sensors to detect obstacles in the water—the goal being for the machines to do that work more effectively than human eyes can. And, for that matter, more tirelessly than human eyes can. Though the stats are improving, human error still causes most maritime accidents, Bloomberg notes. And those are often caused, in turn, by that universal human foible: fatigue.

So can we expect that flotillas of ghost ships will be shipping our stuff by 2024? Levander is hopeful, but there are, as always, hurdles. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the union that represents more than half of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, opposes the unmanning of cargo ships. Virtually controlled machines, an ITF representative told Bloomberg, “cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers.”

That logic also informs current legal and regulatory conventions when it comes to shipping: International conventions set by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency that oversees global shipping, set minimum requirements for ships’ crews. And insurers, of course, are generally unenthused about insuring ships that don’t meet that body’s rules. The International Chamber of Shipping, the industry association that represents more than 80% of the global fleet, says that, at this point, it “isn’t seriously considering the issue” of drone ships.

That may change, though, as unmanned transportation sails steadily from notion to reality. The European Union is currently funding research, the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks project, that explores the costs and benefits of drone ships through a prototype vessel. Its work will be completed next year. As Rolls-Royce’s Levander notes, “Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen.” Plus, he adds: “society is moving in this direction.”