The use of autonomous ships would offer cost savings because with no ocean-going crew, there would be no crew costs. Furthermore, without the infrastructure needed to support a human crew—such as air conditioning, heating, sanitation and crew quarters—there would be more room for cargo. Some estimates claim that such ships would be five percent lighter and use 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel. Not everyone, however, believes such ships are viable.


Earlier this year, the Rolls-Royce led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) presented its first findings at a conference, where speakers expressed high hopes for vessel automation in commercial service—and predicted it will arrive soon.


“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry,” Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce’s marine division, said. “As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”


Speaking at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium this summer, Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, vice president of innovation, Marine, said, “This is happening—it’s not if, it’s when,”


“The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist,” Levander said. “The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland, and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behavior of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”


Not everyone shares that view, or believes such an approach is pragmatic. For example, Captain Samrat Ghosh and Trudi Hogg of the Australian Maritime College at the University of Tasmania have published a paper in the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs explaining that belief in the reliability of fully autonomous vessels is unrealistic.


On the one hand, research in the design and development of fully autonomous and unmanned merchant vessels could reduce human error and provide financial savings through crew salaries and the omission of crew accommodation, they write. Then again, these vessels will require high-quality and reliable communication systems between the unmanned ship and shore, where they will be monitored. That, Ghosh and Hogg write, is the problem.


“It is proclaimed that the incidence of human error will be significantly decreased on the unmanned merchant ship,” Ghosh and Hogg write. “However, the onboard technology requires calibration and maintenance by humans and the vessel requires constant monitoring from a shore control room, where operators will be interpreting, absorbing and acting on information sent from the ship. Human error risks are not eliminated and the unmanned vessel will face new challenges for safe operation and monitoring, as shore operators seek to obtain awareness of the vessel and its surrounds.”


Even though the technical concepts for unmanned vessel operation are well established, studies on human interaction with the systems are not as prevalent, Ghosh says in a Maritime Executive article. The maritime and seafaring industry require further evidence of the validation of the technology before the long-term effects of fully automated vessels can be measured, he says.


At the very least, new skills will be required, and old skills may be lost over time, Ghosh says. The shore crew required to operate unmanned ships will need a new level of aptitude to manage and analyze data, which is an attractive opportunity for some but also raises concerns about training and certification, he says. What’s more, an experienced Master remains a requirement to helm the vessel from ashore, but as specialized shore crew age, it may prove difficult to replace experienced mariners if there are less crew gaining first-hand experience of actually working at sea, Ghosh says.


What are your thoughts on unmanned ships at sea? Would such an endeavor simply replace an on-board crew with a shore-bound crew? It also will be interesting to see what the actual cost of an autonomous ship is, considering the level of high-tech equipment that would be necessary.