Rolls Royce and the Autonomous High Seas

Rolls Royce’s maritime drones could be the future of shipping. But will they ever cross the high seas? 

rolls royce, autonomous, ship, cargoOver the past decade drones have proliferated the land, sky and sea, and now Rolls Royce has entered the automated fray, announcing that it’s developing a drone cargo ship.

Currently, around 90 percent of all global trade finds its way aboard cargo ships, requiring a staggering amount of logistics, crew and in some cases heavy anti-piracy defenses. As such, cargo ships are prime candidates for automation.

In Roll Royce’s vision, a single captain would be able to control a number of cargo vessels via a virtual bridge.  From their perch, which could be time zones away, this virtual commodore would pilot ships stacked from bow to stern with cargo containers. Without the need for crew or a bridge, these new ships would be capable of carrying greater loads while also eliminating air conditioning, sewage and water treatment systems, therefore saving fuel.

According to the company, these giant autonomous cargo ships could make the shipping industry safer, less expensive and more environmentally friendly. “Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,” Oskar Levander, an executive at Rolls-Royce, told Bloomberg. “If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move.”

For the time being, Roll Royce has limited the scope of its autonomous marine vision, focusing on ships that can operate on inland seas, like the Baltic. While the treacherous oceans of the world lay in the distant future, international trade organizations, unions and exporters present a large resistance and have declared the Rolls idea a non-starter. From minimum crew level laws to the safety of cargo, the arguments each group makes aren’t without merit and should give the autonomous system’s architects some pause.

Although Rolls Royce has experienced pushback from a number of industry groups the company believes their concept is the way of the future. With years of red tape, lobbying and R&D to go before an autonomous cargo ship makes its maiden voyage, its anyone’s guess as to whether Rolls will have the wherewithal to see this idea through. Even if they don’t, I expect a maritime world similar to the one they’ve envisioned will be a reality within the century.

Images Courtesy of Rolls Royce