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Monday, January 6, 2014

Rolls Royce is predicting drone cargo ships will be operating within a decade.

I recently blogged about Amazon working toward octocopter drones to deliver orders to customers within 30mins from the time of order. At the time of writing this blog I didn't realise that Rolls Royce , who is a major supplier to the maritime industry, are on a similar path with unmanned drone cargo ships likely to become a reality in less than ten years.

Existing GPS, radar and visual controls make this is entirely possible. The main stumbling block is complex international rules governing shipping and environmental considerations in case of mishaps. For example there is a current requirement in international maritime law for another vessel to go to the aid of another. Perhaps drone ships could be exempted from this requirement?

Another potential impediment is navigating around other vessels at sea that might not have GPS navigation and anti-collision technology such as small fishing or recreational boats. This is currently done by radar and visual sighting of craft from the bridge of the vessel. It is likely that control rooms would be set up to monitor unmanned vessels and take remote control to deal with certain situations that may arise. Real time video feeds can go to the control room from cameras installed around the unmanned vessel so they can physically see what the vessel may be confronting.

There is a research project already running called "MUNIN" which stands for "Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligent Networks. Learn more about Munin.

The MUNIN concept of unmanned vessel operation
The current thinking is that ships would be only be manned as they navigate departure and arrival of ports and their associated channels. Pilots roles would change to accomplish this where they would physically operate the vessel for these segments of the vessels voyage and then switch the vessel to remote and then get off the ship.

Operationally there are some significant gains commercially and environmentally. Vessels can steam more slowly thus using less fuel and creating less emissions. The reason they can steam more slowly is because is purely due to the fact that there is less pressure from the crew to get back to shore. The design of vessels can also change allowing more room for stowage of cargo as there will be no need for accommodation quarters and amenities for the crew. Obviously the ship owners would no longer have to pay the salary of crew as well.

For shippers drone cargo ships would translate into lower freight and charter rates. Of course not every type of vessel would be able to operate with this technology. In the short term bulk carriers and pure container ships would likely be enabled first.

Technology is impacting numerous industries and their are winners and losers but I am excited about the future and pleased to see the shipping industry actively embracing it.

All for now,

+Brad Skelton 

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