Crewless 'drone ships' will be sailing the seas by 2020

Crewless 'drone ships' will be sailing the seas by 2020

The ships will be controlled from 'virtual bridges' based on land

By Alan Tovey  9 APRIL 2016 • 7:08PM

Remote-controlled “drone ships” will be plying the sealanes without crews on board by the end of the decade, according to Rolls-Royce.

The FTSE 100 company best known for its aircraft engines is heading a consortium working to develop the technology needed for ships controlled from land bases, making them cheaper to run.  

“This is happening. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” said Oskar Levander, head of innovation for Rolls’s marine unit. “We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

He predicted the system could turn ships into a seaborne version of car service Uber, with the potential to radically change the current shipping sector.

“Drone ships will allow the creation of new services, which will support existing players to make their businesses more efficient and enable new entrants with new business models to the sector, with a potentially similarly disruptive effect to that caused by Uber, Spotify and Airbnb in other industries.”

Backed by Tekes, Finland’s technical research funding agency, Rolls is working with offshore engineer Deltamarin, marine certification body DNV GL and Inmarsat on the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications project.

Mr Levander said the individual technologies for drone ships now exist, but it is a matter of bringing them together, overcoming legal hurdles and testing the remote control vessels sea.

Sensors such as radar, lasers and computer programs will allow the ships to pilot themselves, with shore-based captains taking over if there is a problem or for complex docking procedures, although the sailors will be on board at first to oversee pilot projects. 

The project has signed up test partners, with Finferries set to start using a 220ft ship to sailing between Finnish islands to examine how they function in a real  environment. ESL Shipping has come on board to explore how drone ships can be used for shorter cargo trips.

In the long term, drone ships are expected to help overcome the staffing shortages in the marine sector, with people increasingly reluctant to take on careers that mean months away from home.  Instead, “virtual” captains and crews will be able to monitor the vessels from land, meaning normal home lives.

It is predicted that crews stationed around the world will be ready to be transferred by helicopter to drone ships which encounter problems or run into trouble they cannot handle themselves.


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