11 Nov 2016 | 

Imagine a huge freighter with not a living soul on board. These ghost ships are coming to an ocean near you.

A few years ago the idea of a self-driving car seemed like science fiction. Then along came the Google car, Tesla’s autonomous vehicle, and several others, and now the concept doesn’t look so fanciful. In fact, the auto industry is enormously confident that automation is the future.

Will the same thing happen with shipping?

According to Esa Jokioinen, head of a specialist marine research team at Rolls-Royce, the answer is an affirmative yes. For safety and efficiency reasons and particularly for cost reasons, he feels the shift to ships with few or no crew is all but inevitable, especially for standard cargo and passenger ferries.

“This is part of an evolution that is happening not only in marine, but in all modes of transportation—trucks, airplanes, and ships,” he says. “Three or four years ago, this was a wild idea. But now we see a lot of investment, as this is not something that will add costs for ship owners. It will reduce their costs.”

In the highly competitive world of maritime freight, even pennies-per-nautical-mile cost improvements are highly sought-after. The sort of savings potentially on offer from automating ships could be too great to pass up, even if a few regulatory and practical challenges have to be overcome. Jokioinen says crew-less vessels could save up to 22% on a per-mile basis.

The main benefits come from doing away with the amenities for crew members: the bridge and deckhouse, the freshwater and wastewater systems, the air conditioning, and so on. Removing these saves electricity and leaves more room for cargo, and allows for a flatter, more aerodynamic design, minimizing drag and upping fuel efficiency.

As with cars, Jokioinen sees a gradual shift to automaton over time, starting with docking procedures. In busy situations, like in the English Channel, a remote operator might take full control. In the open ocean, an operator might oversee five to eight vessels at once (see the video) and the vessel would largely be on its own.

Rolls-Royce, the storied British engine maker, is working on various prototypes in Finland, including a navigation system and sensors incorporating visual and thermal cameras, radar and lidar. Jokioinen expects the first automated demonstrator ships to appear this decade, starting with vessels in national waters. Self-driving ships for international waters, which will require more complex regulatory changes, could appear in the middle of the next decade, he says. The International Maritime Organization, which oversees the rules, has begun developing new guidelines, though the process may take a while. The IMO is not known for nimbleness, that’s for sure.

Jokioinen says the job of crewing ships isn’t as attractive as it used to be. People don’t like being away from their families for long periods and battling rough seas and winds can be dangerous. “Sitting onboard a vessel and trying to observe ships through the darkness is not the most interesting job in the world. Accidents do happen and a lot of them are fatigue-related,” he says. Drewry, a shipping consultancy, forecasts ongoing personnel shortages, particularly at officer level.

Cybersecurity and digital piracy could be issues with unmanned vessels (Jokioinen calls them “the elephant in the room” and says the industry has yet to deepen its awareness of the issues.) But ultimately he doesn’t see the risks of automation outweighing the benefits. Moving higher volumes of stuff more cheaply and efficiently will benefit ship owners, consumers, and the environment.


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