Rolls-Royce to develop drone cargo ships

26 Feb 2014

In what could prove to be a serious challenge to the established shipping industry, Rolls-Royce has confirmed it is designing enormous cargo ships that would be completely unmanned.

The design and implementation of the plan is in the hands of Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team and, according to Bloomberg, will reduce costs significantly while also doing less harm to the environment.

It is envisioned that to control the ships, a crew similar to the one that would traditionally be on a ship will be based on land, where they will control every aspect of the giant tanker.

According to Rolls-Royce, the shipping industry, currently totalling US$395bn and accounting for 90pc of all world trade, will be potentially put into use in the coming decade, with the Baltic Sea being seen as one of the first to host the drone service.

Traditionally, running a crew with expenses like heating, lighting, food and sewage would make up 44pc of a ship’s running cost. Not only would a drone reduce this cost, a ship would be 5pc lighter and more fuel efficient by about 12-14pc.

Unsurprisingly, the trade unions that represent sailors and crews of cargo ships are not happy with the news and one spokesperson has said the idea is unfeasible and will never be able to replace a human crew.

In an emailed statement by Dave Heindel, chairperson of the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s seafarer section, said, “It cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers.

“The human element is one of the first lines of defence in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialise. The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic