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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