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Remote controlled 'robo-ships' coming by 2020

The U.K.-based engineering firm Rolls–Royce says you can expect to see a fleet of 'drone ships' on the high seas by 2020.

A white paper published by the engineering firm and partners is detailing how remote and autonomous shipping will soon become reality.


Rolls Royce

Speaking at an Autonomous Ship Symposium in Amsterdam, Rolls-Royce Vice President of Marine Innovation, Oskar Levander said the technology is already in place.

"This is happening. It's not if, it's when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist.

We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade."

Levander said testing is underway in Finland and the group has already created a simulated autonomous ship control system.

The 6.6 million euro ($7.3 million) project is due to run until 2017 and has drawn on smartphones, aviation drones and driverless cars to help develop unmanned ships.

Highlighted advantages of an autonomous ship include the weight, space and cost saving of removing accommodation quarters.

It's suggested the extra space created would be given up to allow increase cargo load.


Ships would be controlled from an onshore control room.
Rolls Royce
Ships would be controlled from an onshore control room.

The white paper, titled 'Remote & Autonomous Ships – the next step', says the next step is to focus on safety, maritime insurance compliance and technology development in order to achieve 'rapid commercialization'.

The paper describes how a ship could be guided out of a busy port area by an on-shore operator in a control room using a joystick.

On-board sensors would inform the controller of any potential risks or obstacles.

In open sea conditions Rolls-Royce suggests the ship could run on fully autonomous settings, guided only by satellite connection and on-board sensors.

However within the report safety issues are highlighted such as how an emergency situation could be resolved at sea if this ship had reduced or absolutely no crew.

Boredom for land-sited control room operators is also cited as a concern and reaction times are seen as a potential issue if satellite connection delays occur.


An option to have two people on board is under consideration
Rolls Royce
An option to have two people on board is under consideration

Fully autonomous shipping would create a vast level of data which the white paper suggests would help ship owners maximize the value of their fleet.

And Rolls-Royce believes the automation of shipping will create new shipping services such as online cargo markets, asset leasing and more efficient sharing of assets.

The company says that, as Uber and Airbnb have done in other sectors, the tech revolution will open the door for disruptive companies to enter the market.

"Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations," said Mikael Makimnen, President of Rolls-Royce Marine.