Remote-Control Cargo Ships Could Set Sail
These unmanned vessels would be steered by onshore e-navigation systems. Continue reading →
While unmanned aerial drones and Google's self-driving cars are old news, Rolls-Royce would like to float a new concept: self-steering, unmanned cargo ships.
The UK engineering company, one of the world's foremost suppliers to the commercial shipping industry, believes crewless, remote-controlled ships will be safer and cheaper than standard vessels. According to industry consultant Moore Stephens LLP, 44 percent of a ship's total operating costs goes towards maintaining a crew.
"Now it is time to consider a road map to unmanned vessels of various types," Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation, engineering and technology, said according to the BBC. "Given that the technology is in place, is now the time to move some operations ashore? Is it better to have a crew of 20 sailing in a gale in the North Sea, or say five in a control room on shore?"
The European Union is also keen on the idea and is funding a $4.8 million project called Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN). Increases in transport volumes, growing environmental concerns and a shortage of future seafarers are challenges the EU believes unmanned ships could help overcome.
"It allows for more efficient and competitive ship operation and increases in the environmental performance of vessels," the MUNIN website explains. "Furthermore the shore based approach offers ‘seafaring' the possibility to become more socially sustainable by reducing the time seafarers spend away from their families."
Simon Bennett, a spokesman for the International Chamber of Shipping, isn't so gung-ho. Unmanned ships, he says, are currently illegal under international law and "would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory regime" if allowed.
"Apart from the safety considerations, there would also be a lot of questions from bodies such as trade unions," he told the BBC. "While I wouldn't dismiss it completely, realistically it is hard to see remote-controlled ships without any crew for two to three decades."
Still, Bennett says the shipping industry is in the midst of an intense debate about computerized systems controlling ships from ashore. In the meantime, Rolls-Royce is showing off its concept designs and trying to convince the industry that unmanned vessels are the future of shipping on the high seas.
A vertical marine research vessel called the SeaOrbiter has been the dream of French architect Jacques Rougerie for 12 years. But a recently launched crowd-funding campaign through KissKissBankBank aims to help make the 190-foot-tall ship a reality.
The ship is designed to drift with ocean currents and will be completely sustainable, getting power from solar, wind and waves. A side project in conjunction with the European defense and space systems conglomerate, EADS, is working to develop a biofuel for the ship.
Fifty percent of the ship will move through the water submerged, giving those onboard a constant opportunity to observe life below the surface.
The SeaOrbiter has the space to house 18 marine biologists, oceanographers, climatologists and other scientists, who will live and work onboard for months or perhaps years. Its vertical shape gives it the unique advantage of being able to study ocean life from the top of the ship, where birds fly, to the ocean floor, which will be explored by submersibles.
In between the sky and seafloor, explorers living at atmospheric pressure will be able to investigate the ocean 165 feet below the surface. Saturation divers will be able to go as deep as 325 feet. Beyond that, researchers will use subsea vessels equipped with cameras and other sensors.
Rougerie and his supporters, including Ifremer, NASA and National Geographic, want to explore all of the oceans and major seas.
The crowd-funding site is hoping to raise $436,000, just a fraction of the expected cost of $43 million. The money will go toward construction of the upper 60 feet of the vessel, called The Eye.
Construction will begin in the spring of 2014.