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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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.