Ever since humanity crawled from the oceans it seems we have been fixated with returning to them. From humble vine-bound wooden rafts to town-sized liners transporting thousands of holidaying guests at a time, it’s fair to say that, as a species, we’ve got travelling the oceans covered.
Now, finally, it might be time for people to step away from the big blue once again. The latest ocean-going vessels have no need for a human captain and the era of self-sailing ships is approaching at a rate of knots.
From ship to shore…
Shipping is big business: a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars. Millions of containers packed with trillions of products are routinely transported atop the waves. It’s a huge undertaking that requires on-board crews and resources for those employees. Now the maritime industry is looking to reduce the cost of cargo shipping with autonomous technology pioneered by Rolls-Royce.
The Rolls-Royce of the ocean waves
The world-famous engineering company is proposing an autonomous ship design that employs HD cameras relayed to shore-bound surveillance teams, sensor technology, thermal imaging and thermal radar. It’s an ambitious project that combines today’s cutting edge communications technology, to make the cargo ship of tomorrow.
Drones are now commonplace and driverless cars are finally in gear. Engineering has brought the world autonomous vehicles, on the ground and in the air. Yet, with two-thirds of our planet covered in water, you might be forgiven for assuming that we might have done the same on the seas sooner.
Setting a 2020 deadline to produce the first crew-reduced vessel, Rolls-Royce envisages a further fifteen years to perfect the design of a fully-functional autonomous ship. It’s not an unreasonable deadline. Smaller, scaled down vessels are already in use by naval forces and researchers – and have been for several years. So if the necessary technology has existed for this long, why is the autonomous shipping movement only just beginning to make waves?
Crews, money and laws
Firstly, there is sizeable resistance within the industry itself to the new technology. Autonomous shipping means smaller crews and, ultimately, no crews. Perhaps understandably there is reluctance to embrace an evolution of the industry that leads to fewer jobs.
Similarly there is dispute over the costs of the venture. While one figure credits autonomous shipping with a transport cost saving of 22 percent, another puts the crewing costs of running a ship at a mere 6 percent. It’s hard to gauge how financially viable investing in autonomous shipping technology really is.
Lastly sending unmanned ships into chartered waters is, ironically, something of a venture into unchartered waters. Liability for unmanned accidents and mishaps on the seven seas is a legal quagmire for which there is currently very little legislation. As progress develops rapidly on the first voyage to set sail, governments are going to have to tie up any legal loopholes to keep laws watertight for the rare occasions when the ships themselves aren’t.
Captain, no captain
Despite these hurdles the autonomous program is steaming on, with many key industry players on board. The rapid rise of smart technology has pushed the possibilities of logistics in waves just this past decade, with the autonomous cargo ship merely a few years from making her first journey. Against the backdrop of ever-advancing progress, the dissenting voices may increasingly become a drop in the ocean.