Drones at Sea: Automated cargo ships to set sail by 2035

By 2035 the world’s cargo will be carried by 200m fully automated vessels operating entirely without an onboard human crew, according to researchers.

Carrying food and minerals, such ships will be safer, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate than current cargo vessels, according to members of MUNIN, a European Union-funded research project aiming to make unmanned cargo ships a reality.

“There aren’t many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today”, said researcher Ørnulf Rødseth.

“Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today’s vessel accidents.”

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These ships would be operated from a central onshore control centre, with one person responsible for up to ten vessels, and would only need a 3-4Mbit broadband connection to ensure adequate communication.

The researchers say that much of the technology needed for autonomous vessels exists, but the real challenge is demonstrating their safety.

“The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists,” said Rødseth.

“Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems. It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry.”

Maritime laws will need to be changed to enable unmanned vessels to be used, so a central focus will be proving the technology is at least as safe as current, manned vessels.

This is likely to involve initial voyages where the crew are onboard as a safety net but the autonomous system controls the vessel.

Most important will be the development and demonstration of a warning system to prevent ships colliding, which the researchers are confident can be achieved.

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Automated vessels do, however, create some unexpected issues that will need to be addressed.

A key concern is fuel: the heavy oil fuels used on current ships result in regular maintenance being needed, so an alternative fuel would have to be sought.

“Less expensive, liquid natural gas might be the answer here”, said Rødseth. “But this will involve designing the vessels from scratch”.

Not having humans onboard to perform maintenance will create what Rødseth describes as “our biggest challenge”, however such an issue could well be resolved with a team of maintenance bots – another technology that is seeing rapid development.

The vessels provide some clear cost savings, as they would remove the need to pay the wages of vast crews, as well as potential fuel savings. Whether the maritime industry will accept a technology that renders much of its workers unemployed, however, remains to be seen.


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The UK government is launching a fintech competition to help renters get on the property ladder

The UK government is offering £2 million to fintech developers who come up with a tool that lets renters record and share their payment data.

The Rent Recognition Challenge, which was first announced as part of the chancellors’ autumn budget, will task developers with finding a way to record payment data from Britain’s 11 million renters in a bid to improve their credit scores and ultimately help them to get a mortgage.

“Most lenders and Credit Reference Agencies are unable to take rental data into account, because they don’t have access to it.

“The Rent Recognition Challenge will challenge firms to develop an innovative solution to this problem and help to restore the dream of home ownership for a new generation,” said the economic secretary to HM Treasury, Stephen Barclay.

Economic secretary to HM Treasury, Stephen Barclay. Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

The competition will provide an initial round of grant funding to six promising proposals to help turn their ideas into workable products.

A panel of leading figures from the Fintech sector will then whittle the six down to just a handful of teams who will receive further funding and support to bring their ideas to market.

“People’s monthly rent is often their biggest expense, so it makes sense for it to be recognised when applying for a mortgage. Without a good credit score, getting a mortgage can be a real struggle.”

Image courtesy of Jeff Djevdet

The government’s attempt to help more people out of private renting arrangements and into home ownership comes after Scottish Widows published a report that warned tomorrow’s pensioners will have to find huge amounts of money to pay ever-escalating rents to private landlords.

Scottish Widows projected one in eight retirees will be renting by 2032, which works out to three times the number renting today. It also said there is a £43bn gap between the income and savings people have now and what the rent bill will be in retirement.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dan Wilson Craw of campaign group Generation Rent said: “The common perception is that retirees either own their home outright or have a council tenancy, so the government will be in for a nasty shock as more of us retire and continue to rent from a private landlord.

“Many renters relying on pensions will qualify for housing benefit which will put greater strain on the public finances.”

The Rent Recognition Challenge will open to applications early in the New Year, and development will conclude in October 2018.