Rolls-Royce Begins Design Work on Automated Vessels

by | Thursday, July 17, 2014 | 0 comment(s)

Rolls-Royce has begun designing automated bulk carrier vessels that it hopes to have on the water within 15 years, drawing apprehension and skepticism from many in the maritime industry.

The question of automated transport is not a new one – many metro systems around the world use automated trains to transport passengers throughout large cities; in fact, in the last few years, the New York City subway system has added automated trains to their fleet as well. What’s more, the International Association of Public Transport, based in Belgium, wholly supports automated transport.

But the transition is rarely without controversy. How can unmanned transport be safe? What about the jobs that are eliminated? Can computers really effectively operate such large transportation vehicles? The answers to all these questions are heavily debated and defended on both sides, and now the discussion has arrived in the shipping industry.

Why Go Automated?

Rolls-Royce asserts that its automated ships will be much cheaper and more efficient than the manned ships they are designed to replace. The captains would steer the ships remotely from virtual, 360-degree control rooms on land, which would allow one person to steer and monitor many vessels concurrently. Because there would no longer be a need for onboard personnel, both bridge and accommodation systems could be eliminated, lightening the load of these vessels, lessening the expense of long voyages and allowing more room for cargo.

The primary benefits for moving toward drone vessels are cited as:

  • Reduction in accidents by reducing human error
  • Lower manning costs
  • Solution to the problem of shortage of seafarers
  • Easy implementation of Slow Steaming to increase efficiency and reduce emissions
  • Absolute environmental regulation compliance

Says Oskar Levander, VP of Innovation in Marine Engineering and Technology for Rolls-Royce, “The fact is if you don’t have people on board, then you don’t need any deckhouse . . . And if you don’t have people on board, you don’t need a lot of systems that are there just for them. It’s about water production, it’s about heat and ventilation and provision storage, a lot of things that are there today to make it habitable for people. All that goes away with an unmanned ship. The weight comes down and there is a lot of cost that goes into building these systems.”

With an automated ship, the operator could also eliminate the expense of having a crew, a savings of 39 percent, according to a 2011 report by Moor Stephens, LLP.

Levander expressed, “The crew cost depends very much on your operation and size of vessel. And it won’t go down to zero — you’ll still have some people involved in the remote control. But there are substantial savings. That is the driver. It is about making shipping more efficient.”

Levander also addressed the question of safety. He conveyed that the majority of maritime accidents are due to human error as a result of a loss of concentration or fatigue, which would not be an issue with the drone vessels. Says Levander, “If you control the ship from land, the facilities are better. People can go home to sleep; they have their family life. It’s a better working environment that should also provide for better concentration on work.”

Critics Disagree

But critics, including mariners and their unions, see the drone vessels as vulnerable to problems that arise at sea that cannot be addressed from land. Says Klaus Luhta, Chief of Staff for the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, “I don’t know about the technology aspect of it — I guess anything is possible nowadays — but from a practical standpoint I don’t see it as a tenable solution. Just from a safety perspective, when you’re on a ship on the water, crossing the ocean, there are so many variables that go into how a vessel operates just in terms of navigation. A lot of those variables require real-time decisions that have to have a set of eyes on the problem.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), representing nearly 600,000 seafarers, is also opposed. Says Dave Heindel, Chairman of the ITF’s Seafarers’ Section, “The human element is one of the first lines of defense in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialize.”

Rolls-Royce’s response to such concerns is that the unmanned ships are being designed with redundant systems and monitoring functions that can anticipate things like equipment failures. Additionally, if an operator were to lose contact with a vessel, that vessel would immediately go into “safe mode” and come to a stop exactly where it is with the assistance of dynamic positioning.These ships could be programed to anchor themselves and wait for contact to be resumed.

Asserts Levander, “You’re not limited to the view that you would have on the bridge of a ship. When you look at many ships today, cargo ships, the bridge is quite far aft, it’s high up and you might have a lot of cargo in your view. You don’t see what’s really happening very close to the ship. So when you’re doing this with cameras and other navigational aids, you can get a much better picture.”

But Luhta argues that technology cannot eliminate the need for a captain and crew, stating, “I can’t envision a day when you have a video camera mounted in the wheelhouse looking out at the water, along with wind sensors and some sort of knot meter that reads the current, and be able to make decisions based on that data alone. There’s kind of a feel to this business and you need people out there.”


A research project called MUNIN – Maritime Unmanned Navigation Through Intelligence in Networks supported by the European Commissions, is developing and testing the autonomous ship concept.

According to a 2013 presentation by Clamber University of Technology in Gothenberg, Sweden, “human error” is one of the biggest contributing factors for maritime accidents around the world. Some statistics from the presentation include the following percentages of human error with regard to their contribution to shipping accidents:

  • 84-88% of Tanker Accidents
  • 79% of Towing Vessel Groundings
  • 89-96% of Collisions
  • 75% of Allisions
  • 75% of fires and explosions

Looking forward

For now, Rolls-Royce is playing a “long game.” The idea is to get the maritime industry adjusted to the concept of unmanned vessels long before they are ever introduced to the market. Currently, such ships are still illegal, and the idea faces many challenges in today’s shipping industry, including:

  • Seafarers will face unemployment issues
  • Legal issues related to seafarers rights
  • Advanced communication and navigation technologies to support remove control ships
  • Certification of seafarers for managing ships from shore
  • Setting up efficient shore control systems
  • Higher costs of construction

Says Levander, “In order to create the market, we are now discussing it with flag states and class societies and trying to, so to speak, bring the different stakeholders into the game and drive this forward.There are definitely ship owners who are interested in it. No one is saying they are going to buy it today because it is not there yet. But they definitely see it as a very interesting development and recognize that it will be one of the most fundamental changes in shipping for some time.”

Levander and Rolls-Royce have a great deal of support on their side – with automated technology moving into virtually every industry worldwide, the evidence is mounting in support of drones and unmanned transport. However, it will be an uphill battle with unions and mariners alike, as human capital must be considered equally with the advantages of going automated. It’s a battle New York City knows all too well – the expense of transitioning to automated, as well as the loss of jobs, are factors not to be taken lightly.

Over the next fifteen years, as technology advances even further, computers continue to become even more of a presence in daily tasks, and increased evidence of the effectiveness and success of unmanned vehicles becomes available, it will be interesting to see how Rolls-Royce completes and introduces its drone vessels to the industry.Surely, it will not be without debate for many years to come.

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