Just as driverless cars will become a reality, so will unmanned ships. And that, experts warn, will require a rethink of operations and business models in shipping.
Unmanned ships will be able to carry more cargo than today’s ships as they will not need a deckhouse and they will be cheaper to build because a range of equipment, from air conditioning to wastewater treatment, will not be required, according to Oskar Levander, VP for innovation and technology at Rolls-Royce Marine.
Speaking at a seminar on unmanned ships at Nor-Shipping in Norway, Levander said the entire design of the ships would have to be rethought once unmanned vessels became a reality. However, business models will be affected too.
“Route optimisation of these ships would mean that day costs fall. Speeds would be optimised too, they would steam slower, so you would need more ships to optimise service frequency,” Levander continued, referring to container vessels.
He pointed out that although it appears that the size of container ships is growing, this is no guarantee that future vessels will be as big. In the 1970s, several ULCCs of more than 500,000 dwt were built, but they did not become the benchmarks of crude carrier business. Today, a VLCC of about 300,000 dwt sets that benchmark.
Martin Kits van Heyningen, CEO of KVH Industries in the US, said it would seem unlikely that unmanned container vessels the size of the 18,400 teu-capacity Triple-E class of Maersk Line would be built.
Levander continued by saying that reliability of equipment on board had to improve significantly before unmanned vessels could be employed in deepsea trades, as today’s default expectation is that ships have crews to look after the equipment on board.
Regulatory considerations also prevent the use of unmanned vessels at the moment and it will take time to change this.
Unmanned technology is likely to be used first on short-haul domestic trades, which means regulatory approval will only be needed from a single state.
The seminar also drew attention to possible dangers in the times of transition from human-controlled to unmanned ships. Van Heyningen agreed that points of transformation were when the risk of accidents was highest, as seen in the aviation industry.
However, he noted that while masters of ships today mostly perform tasks related to paperwork and actually control their ships for perhaps 5% of the total time, a master in the control centre of an unmanned fleet would have a number of ships under his command, through remote control, and would take vessels into and out of ports far more often.