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Unmanned Cargo Ships

Ship designers, ship operators and regulators are getting together for a future which could see unmanned cargo ships become a reality.

Ship operators assume that increasing automation will give them the possibility to optimise ship use and cut the fuel consumption. Paelle Laursen, chief of Maersk Line Ship Management said “the benefit of automation is as an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate”.

British engine maker Rolls Royce PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative involving several universities and companies which expects technologies used to improve commercial airline operations migrating to ships.  The group is also trying to implement technology from those working on driverless cars, and adapt it for safe-at-sea autonomous operations. 


Future of Sea Freight Shipping?

A future unmanned cargo ship could be very similar to an advanced combat drone. It would be equipped with infrared detectors, laser sensors to monitor its surrounding and high-resolution cameras.

Vice president for innovation at Rolls-Royce marine unit Oskar Levander said “moving toward greater autonomy and unmanned shipping could cut transport costs 22%”. The majority would come from lower staff costs, fuel efficiency helped by eliminating the need to carry equipment to support people onboard.

The first steps toward an unmanned cargo ship are already being taken. The Stella ferry, used in the Baltic Sea and operated by Finferries, has been equipped with a variety of sensors including lasers and thermal cameras to assess whether such sensors could allow autonomous operations.

Automating shipping is encountering barriers, though. “There are a vast range of safety, security, navigational and legal challenges to be solved before crewless container vessels can be considered in our fleet,” said Maersk’s Mr. Laursen.

Capt. Thanasis Apostolopoulos, head of crews at Springfield Shipping Co. in Athens, sees the drive to unmanned ships as being inevitable. “It will be a sad day for seafarers when it happens,” he said.

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