Marine

Rolls-Royce outlines vision for robotic ships of the future

Rendering of the robot ship of the future
Rendering of the robot ship of the future
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A robot fleet under way
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A robot fleet under way
Rendering of the robot ship of the future
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Rendering of the robot ship of the future

Running away to sea has been a dream of escape for centuries, but unless you plan to be a tap dancer on a cruise ship, that door may be closing. In a report on the future of cargo shipping, Rolls-Royce Vice President for Innovation, Engineering and Technology, Oskar Levander, outlines a vision for a time not far from now when freighters and other ships are unmanned robots that cruise the oceans under remote control by shore based captains.

Imagine it's 20 years from now and a cargo container ship bigger than anything afloat today approaches the port of Shanghai. Despite its size, it looks surprisingly simple with a hull designed for extreme efficiency. It has Flettner rotors for catching the wind and helping to save fuel, but below the slim equipment mast there's no superstructure. There’s no space for crew’s quarters, and there aren't even lifeboats or guardrails. When the pilot comes aboard to guide the ship into port from the minimalist bridge (if it has one) there’s no one to greet him or offer a cup of tea because the vessel is a robot, without a single person on board.

According to Levander, this scenario may come about because of the economic pressures being put upon the merchant fleets of the world. The Rolls-Royce report works on the assumption that the era of cheap energy is over and that rising fuel costs will require alternatives to the heavy fuel oil that currently powers the world’s shipping. In addition, shipping companies will have to contend with increasing burdensome national and international regulation, especially in regard to greenhouse gases, which will produce major rises in costs.

A robot fleet under way
A robot fleet under way

This will require a great deal of innovation, such as converting ships to burn biofuels, developing more efficient hulls, and installing solar panels or wind propulsion in the form of Flettner rotors and the like to cut down on energy bills. However, the biggest cost to shipping is labor – in fact, industry consultant Moore Stephens LLP put this expense at 44 percent in an interview with the BBC.

This cost isn't just in the form of salaries and pensions. Crews need living quarters, galleys, washing facilities recreation areas, lifeboats, and a lot of other things to keep them safe and comfortable. These cost money to build and maintain, as well as fuel to cart it all around the world. Rolls-Royce’s plan is to take an holistic approach to future ship design aimed at tackling the problem by incorporating new hulls, engines, solar power systems, and partial sails.

In all of this, the most radical is turning merchant ships into robotic craft, where Horatio Hornblower sails his ship all over the world without ever leaving Plymouth. That may not seem like much fun, but it’s a path that marine engineering has been on since the time when some ancient ship's master figured out how to balance his sails, so he wouldn't have to steer so much. Since then, all sorts of automatic steering and navigation mechanisms have been developed until today when it isn't uncommon to read news stories of ships steaming into port of their crews abandoned them prematurely in some disaster.

Even with the largest ship, steering a course is relatively simple and its rare for a helmsman to touch the wheel between ports. What’s really needed is the ability of a ship to pilot itself and keep watch under the guidance of shore operators. Many ships are already equipped with all sorts of cameras that can see at night and through fog, not to mention radar, sonar, GPS and a plethora of other sensors hooked up to high speed satellite data relays. Rolls-Royce foresees a time when these sensors and automatic systems will allow onshore crews to control and monitor ships from land-based centers with little difficulty.

Aside from the more obvious cost advantages, such an arrangement would allow one person ashore to control several ships. Levander sees this as both safer and making it easier to retain skilled crews, saying that it’s better for a ship to be operated by five operators on shore as opposed to 20 wrestling with the ship in a gale in the middle of the North Sea.

However, shiphandling is a complex task and a ship doesn't operate in isolation. Before robot ships can set sail, there are serious safety issues to be answered about collision avoidance and similar concerns. There are also many legal hurdles about responsibility for the ship and compliance with regulations and maritime law, which might see a token crew kept aboard with nothing to do except fulfill salvage law. If these and other objections can be overcome, then the seas may be a safer and more efficient place, albeit a less romantic one.

Source: Rolls-Royce

21 comments
James Smith
As a long-distance sailor, I have had more than one encounter with cargo ships that supposedly were fully crewed. In a couple, I could raise no one on the radio so was uncertain about their intentions. Being smaller (35') and more maneuverable, I took what evasive action I hoped was best/ Fortunately, the unresponsive vessels maintained course and speed, as expected under autopilot. There is a maritime regulation about maintaining a proper lookout at all times. But maybe that doesn't apply if you're big enough and don't care.
Nairda
Energy requirements for crew quarters is an insignificant proportion of fuel used by the ship to travel. If they are serious about energy saving we would see the mechanically deployable sails that were proposed some year back that claimed beyond 20% reduction per trip with ship engines status quo.
JPAR
An open invite to modern-day pirates.....!
Mel Tisdale
Surely, a more sensible solution to shipping costs is to cut out all these global movements of goods and produce in the first place. Let's get back to not having strawberries and other such items in mid winter just because it happens to be summer on the other hemisphere. When they do become available locally, they will taste so much the better for not being a common item in our diet. Let's make goods where they are to be used. I.e. let's employ local people at local rates under local laws instead of exporting the jobs to countries that have poor labour and emissions controls and an attitude of 'to hell with people and planet'. At least Rolls Royce recognises that we have extracted all the cheap oil and can see that prices will rise at the front end, which will lead to shortages in supply or retail prices will rise with all that that means for us and our way of life. The oil supply parts of this article need to be read in conjunction with the Our Finite World's blog and the climate change component read in conjunction with Professor James Lovelock's latest work and the Nature Bats Last blog. Afterwards, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only sensible option is to 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ...'
Observer101
Obviously this is the way of the future. Actually, they would be BETTER than a "manned" ship, as they would be driven utilizing a multitude of devices. (Camera's, sonars, radars, GPS, alert systems, and of course "anti-boarding" devices…) Yes, there are those against the idea, but then, they are probably those who opposed the use of "unmanned" aircraft…. The only thing I see as a "down-side" is that JOBS are eliminated (maybe not when you consider the personnel needed to develop, install, and maintain the systems, as well as the "operators" working from shore…)
lwesson
JPAR is on to something per pirates as a crew-less ship is a tempting target. Robo Pirates perhaps too? And without a crew, Salvage Rights will have to be re-written. Without a crew, what does one do if there is a malfunction, a mechanical breakdown? My Wife has crewed on a big Natural Gas transport, and there were lots of things to do, to keep tabs on, to adjust... And yes, what about sails? You want to save on fuel oil, this would help. I guess the folks at Rolls Royce can make a promise like in the film WESTWORLD, "Where nothing can go wrong. "
Mindbreaker
If they were made submarine, it eliminates or potentially eliminates many of the negatives. Just run 10 feet under, dive a little to get under other ships. It would be very difficult for pirates to do anything. Hard for them to even find it. It would not be like a military submarine that has to be able to go several hundred feet down. This would be maximum 150 feet. Perhaps even less. You can ignore the weather, most ocean traffic. Big retractable air scoop/exhaust port. Hold and compress enough air for 30 minutes operation or have a hybrid drive and some batteries for anytime it has to go lower than the air scoop.
jerryd
Obviously whoever wrote this doesn't have a clue. Crews are mostly 3rd world so costs are minor, not 44 percent, likely well under 10 percent. The whole crew could be put in one 30x40' cabin on the deck, just not that costly. What will be costly is the first time it breaks down and they have to pay for a service call to the middle of the ocean. And biggest problem, pirates. These ships will be boarded, robbed or completely taken by the various criminal gangs, making it not cost effective. Then again the crew members steal so much shipping cars, etc you have to take the stereo, etc out as they will rip the dash apart causing $1,000's of damages on most every personal imported car I use to do the DOT/EPA on to make them US legal.
Nelson Hyde Chick
Great, we can automat everything, and nobody will need to work, but because no one will have no money there will be no one to buy the goods. A unfeedback loop.
bradleydad
This is all about as funny as Amazon and their delivery drones. Running underwater would take a great deal more power. Simply put, there is no way to run a ship without a crew. I'd like to see a helmsman try to keep his boat turned into the wavesin a storm, especially with the ify satellite coms you expect during a big blow. Also, you certainly couldn't remote pilot one into a harbor. Can you imagine unmanned ships sailing under the Golden Gate bridge headed for Oakland?
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