Can Futuristic Unmanned Cargo Ships Sail Without Seafarers?

Future might be nearer than you think. While the majority of maritime industry focuses on introducing new technologies for reducing emissions and improving efficiency, there is a certain segment which is majorly considering automation to improve shipping operations with increased safety.

One such bold step is taken by Rolls-Royce, who recently unveiled the design of the world’s first remote-controlled unmanned cargo ship.

The concept of unmanned cargo ships revolves around a no-crew ship that can be controlled from the shore. A research project called MUNIN –  Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks supported by the European Commissions, aims at developing and testing this autonomous ship concept.  

Ships Sail Without Seafarers

Why Unmanned Ships?

According to a presentation by Clamber University of Technology, Gothenberg Sweden in 2013 (unmanned-ship), “human error” is one of the biggest contributing factors for maritime accidents around the world. Sometime back, for Europe the statistics of shipping accidents were :

human error
Copyrights: Thomas Porathe, Maritime Human Factors, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg. Sweden.

People behind the development of this concept are optimistic that unmanned ships will greatly help in reducing accidents at sea taking place because of human error.

Benefits on the basis of which the concept of unmanned ships is being planned are:

  • 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

Ships Sail Without Seafarers

However, one of the main reasons behind Rolls-Royce Unmanned ship concept is “Ship Efficiency” – the important factor which directly impacts operating costs. Shipping companies around the world are continuously working on reducing operating costs, especially after the introduction of a number of environmental regulations which involves greater costs of implementation of advanced technologies and safety measures.

According to Rolls-Royce “Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable. Eliminate or reduce the need for people, and vessels could be radically simplified.”

As these unmanned ships will not need crew facilities and systems such as air conditioning, electricity and sewage, it is expected that they will be cheaper to operate. Such unmanned ships supported by improved ship design and systems to reduce fuel consumption can go a long way to help solve issues of efficiency and optimization.

Moreover, in order to control these unmanned vessels, the same seafarers who are required for manned ships can be appointed to monitor and steer several ships from a shore control room. Advanced navigational and communication systems would also be used to facilitate accurate control and transfer of data between the ship and shore control.

But despite the potential benefits, unmanned ships will have to face a series of issues before they become a reality. Moreover implementation of unmanned ship is illegal according to the minimum crew requirements regulation. The International Transport Worker’s federation (ITF) also believes that these remote controlled vessels will lack the skills, knowledge and experience which professional seafarers provide.

container ship

Some of the main hurdles unmanned ships face are:

  • Seafarers’ around the world can 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

As Rolls Royce says, it’s now time to consider roadmap of unmanned vessels of various types. However, the industry awaits a solution for an approach, which permits unmanned ships concept to comply to shipping regulations in the most cost efficient way while addressing key cost issues of fuel, finance, cargo handling and crew.

Over to you…

Do you think unmanned ships are the future of maritime industry? Let us know your comments..

Image credits:

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About Author

Raunek Kantharia is a marine engineer turned maritime writer and entrepreneur. After a brief stint at the sea, he founded Marine Insight in 2010. Apart from managing Marine Insight, he also writes for a number of maritime magazines and websites.

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  1. No a/c? How will they keep the vast amounts of computers, servers, engines, pumps etc. cool while running in warm climates? How will they maintain all the equipment on board? How will they keep everything certified and up to date? These vessels will need to spend alot more time “offhire” for maintenance while in port/yards.
    And how will they communicate with other vessels out at sea that only has a VHF?

    As anybody working on larger ships today will know, most of the crews time is not spent “steering” the vessel, that is the easy part. The crew (including officers in both departments) spends their days maintaining equipment, the vessel itself, certifications, port clearance paperwork, testing etc. etc.

    The redundancy in these vessels would have to be outrageous, double maybe triple of everything, including propulsion. 100% redundancy can ether way never be achieved if worst case should happen.

    In any case, I think these ships are unrealistic in our near future, maybe we`ll see them in a couple of hundred years?

  2. As newly navigator, i don’t think the feel of navigating the ship from shore will be as same as navigate onboard itself. This will resulting in how n what decision to be taken to avoid certain cases in manoeuvring. So in this case, same factor will be spoken by ‘shore personal’….HUMAN ERROR!

    However, i believe, before implementing this idea or project, all opinions and info sharing already being conducted with professional n experienced group of personal. GOOD LUCK anyway.. (even deep inside rejecting it..hehehehe)

  3. shortage of seafearer…there are a lot of us who arestruggling to get jobs..and u say shortage of seafarer…get ur facts corrected…

  4. So we are going to make an unmanned ship to avoid human errors, but this ships will be made by humans…so if they fail, it is also human error!! In addition, as Nnav said, there could be human errors from shore personal!!

    And Knut AM, the answer to all your questions is: by robots 😉 which will have to be maintained by other robots…which will have problems due to human errors in their designs…causing finally the accidents 😛

  5. It is not possible to be done as long as Act of God exists
    Think the simplest scenario a ship goes through a hail storm the vessel and cargo remains intact but the cameras or the sat antennas brakes very common problems nowadays in some cases daily.
    What happens next ?
    1. vessel gets crazy and crushing itself causing pollution maybe also kill somebody at shore
    2. the first fisherman who see the vessel gets rich under the act of lost and found at sea
    3. i hope to find it before fishermen

    Think about this scenario it is the most simple, these ships are a big joke R.R. just wants to attract people to sell Wartsila engines more than that is only the joke

    2nd officer and Masters student

  6. I think in the future the earth will be a place with ”workaholic” robots and drones and… ”desperate” humans who bearly try to survive..

  7. not possible never possible because if engine failure or fire onboard then what will happen with these unmanned ships.

  8. I think that the main hurdles of the project are the lobbies of:

    – life-saving appliances industry
    – nautical publications industry
    – shipchandler

    Technical and legal aspects of the project can be easely solved. I compare drone vessel with the first printing machinery which made many hand writers jobless.

  9. Solar power, get rid of those big stone crushers, battery electric is the way to go.

  10. Its a good idea for establishing an unmanned ships , but it would be more to consider the level of employment and the effect of jobless seafarers .

    Things would change as future is connected with unmanned vessels of various types. However, shipping regulations in the most cost efficient way would be nil and pollution risks would be much worse .

  11. Dear Harpreet,

    This was rolls roys study and when we enquired about them on the stressed sentence, they pointed towards top management level officers who are still below the demand levels.

  12. I think this concept of the unmanned commercial cargo vessels is a good idea. This will minimize the risk of seafarers been taken hostage by Pirates and exposed to other water based criminal activity.

    However it would be equally risky to apply the same concept to leisure people carriers such as crew liners and other recreational vessels.

    Mark Smith

  13. It will be really happened ? Actually it is really nice . But it will lack the skills, knowledge and experience of seafarer . Then the future will be in danger.

  14. There isn’t a shortage of seamen…there is a shortage of seamen willing to work for the pay and conditions the Companies are offering. Today’s seaman, especially from the Third World are little more modern-day serfs.

  15. The ship will still be run by humans: probably from a land-locked country with the cheapest possible labor pool.

    How will the ship operate in pilot waters? What happens when a solar flare diminishes communications at a critical time? What happens if a bird craps on the camera that looks forward?

    It is difficult enough maintaining a ship in safe working order with a full-time staff. Dipshittery, pure and simple.

  16. I suppose the idea would have to entail that the main part of the voyage would be unmanned, until the vessel reached the port limits and when ready to go to port, the necessary personnel, would embark the vessel and carry out the pilotage.

    The biggest hurdles that I think of are:
    – urgent maintenance issues and detection of deteriorating conditions such as machinery sounding wrong or minor leeks showing signs of major problems developing.
    – fire fighting
    – collision avoidance (one of the most basic principles taught in maritime academy and repeated on every vessel “look out the window”). You must be able to see the water to know well enough which way a fishing vessel chooses to go at the last minute.
    – Security: Particularly when the vessel is stopped or anchored, it will be an attractive target for high-jackers or thieves (even bare steel is worth lots of money and as we can see from the looting of railway cables, unattended constructions will have “customers”.)

    Some of these obstacles can be reduced, by for instance creating TSSs for these unmanned ships and making removing all oncoming and crossing traffic. Creating frequent offshore piers or “safe havens” for the vessels to seek refuge in case of loss of control. Could also booby-trap the vessel with electricity against trespassing.

    Still, there is severe weather to add to all these factors, and when force 12 winds hit, it is hard to imagine that shore personnel can get a good enough sense of how to navigate the ship safety.

    Main advantage:

    No loss of human life when things do go wrong

    No drunk captains!

  17. What will be the meaning of our life if we made everything running with computers and machines , and if these ships are controlled from shore stations by humans that does not eliminate the human error as Rolls Royce says .

  18. Ya it’s possible auter space. Naw in aur earth we have traffic & population. Safety specially invayarmental safety. I been 38 years at sea naw tays I can’t sea enaf of fish in sea. Try with precision god save aur water.

  19. Its like a joke and will take hundreds of years for implementation …. now a days i would say its a bad idea of unmanned ships , at the end they will need mariners for propulsion .

  20. 1. If a shore management is setup it is manned by human and there too human error exists
    2. Considering piracy it becomes easy for pirates to hijack
    3. Who’s going to respond to calls from coast guard and navy?
    4. Overall not going to work in near future

  21. Its not a game…. sitting and playing with control station……. thinking about unmanned ship is no use at all……….. if u can try to reduce human error by good teaching, giving training to seafarers….. etc…. instead of giving certificate……….

    For dreaming its good real life never…….

  22. Let us wait until rolls-royces awake ….Im sure they are in deep sleep…they are only dreaming….

  23. Tankers? Unmanned is maybe impossible.
    1. Mooring operations, docking, undocking, SBM, SPM and etc.
    2. STS operations, cargo hoses connection and etc.
    3. During loading, unloading, tank cleaning, deballasting & ballasting and etc.
    4. Failure of equipments and etc.
    5. During emergencies; On board decisions and actions are better than at shore based.

    If they want to reduce human errors they shall reduce the bridge watch to 2 hours only. They shall make 4 navigating officers with safety officer other than cargo officer. Bridge team shall be the Master, 4 navigating officers and helmsman/lookout. Separately there shall be 1 safety officer and 1 Cargo officer. Master and deck officers shall be a total of 7 seafarers.

  24. It is not possible to change all 100% of ships unmanned, because its depends on company financial status, for example Mol, mearsk, nyk, etc are ok for that but rest of more then 95% shipping cmp.Are not so rich so that means in one area one ot two ships are unmanned but other 98% ships r control by ships crew and some time accident happend due to other ships error, and another problem is in these ships no pilot need so all port authorities aldo must be special control rooms for this type of ships so it is also make burden on port authority to make it so before make these ship company also make a control room but also port authorities, and suppose a p moller have 300 ships, for control these 300 ships the 300 robot or person all time on duty, but what happens when 100 ships r in port all 100 port must have rooms to control these? So rolls Royce must ask all port authorities “how they will control it in port limit or in port.

  25. Fantastic, exciting and very much realistic concept. All maintenance, berthing, cargo operation will be done by shore personnel who will board the ship just like pilot. Modern navigational sensors will be more capable, reliable and accurate than human. All parameters will be available online in real time based on which preventive maintenance plans can be prepared in advance. Amount we are spending on manning and their requirement will be available for shore maintenance. At the end of evey voyage a team of personnel specialised in preventive maintenance will board the vessel, carrying out survey, condition monitoring, maintenance etc. and the vessel will be ready for her next voyage. Accident rates will be much lower in comparison of manned ship.

    Employment rate will be same with fantastic working environment at shore. Days of stress are gone.Go home everyday. Remember once we had apprehension about computers too and now think how much employment it has generated and how much simplified our life is today.

    Hope first technology demonstrator will be ready with in 7-8 years or it is coming much earlier than expected. Just think about engineering involved.


  26. R.R. first try to make a r.r ghost which can be remotely operated,does not need maintainance even if it runs continuosly for a month…and cheap of course…

    concept every body have…putting to work is other thing..
    how many of your concepts actually worked?? any stats???
    if you take some absurd concepts then its almost zero percent chance to will waste money…

    there are too many variables in the marine environment as others have stated…even a birdshit can hamper your operation…( that was a good one..)

    anyway good luck..and will you have a vacancy in future when this concept materializes( which i doubt)??

    and anyway…it will be good for both deck and engine ppl…
    cause ship should be navigated from shore( deck ppl ..thats for you)….and for ship operating safely..every port must be having maintaince jobs facility..( more opening for engine side..and shore job also…hehe)..
    just like it happens in aiports…

  27. And PIRATES….just send US navy seals or marine commandos to pump some bullets in their head…
    No captain Phillips like scenario will ever arise.

  28. In terms of concept a very beautiful dream??!!??. But in reality lot problems. many companies have come back to old style of working after failed attempts of modernization and new gadgets on board. This concept may work on few fixed feeder routes with fixed cargo specially some kind dry or boxes, with vessel being taken over upon arriving at port roads etc. Biggest challenge we still do not have a good radars that can detect the fishing vessel and small boats that can be seen only visually. We have dozens of navy vessels with most powerful radar systems and technologies in Gulf of Aden and still can’t detect an approaching pirate boat……so forget about this RR unmanned vessel detecting the fishing boats?????. i am sure they do not want spend so much of money for ultra modern radars. By the way the only INDUSTRY IN THE WORLD THAT SPENDS PEANUTS ON MAN POWER AND GET THE GOLD IN TERMS RETURNS. IF YOU COMPARE A SHORE BASED INDUSTRY OF THE SIZE OF SINGLE SHIP AND COST, LET IT BE ANY COUNTRY YOU HAVE TO HAVE AT LEAST 200 PERSON TO OPERATE, HERE WE THE PROUD SAILOR DO IT AT PALTRY SUMS OF SALARIES AND FACILITIES, JUST 20 PERSONS OR SO. REDUCING COSTS JUST A BIG JOKE, SHIP STAFF CLEAN THE HOLDS FOR JUST 250 USD (MAY BE MAX 300 USD, GIVEN AS AN INCENTIVE TO CREW) SAME JOB TRY DOING IT BY EUROPE OR US OR AUSTRALIA WILL COST ANYTHING OVER 30000/- USD AND MIN LOSS OF TWO DAYS HIRE, ADD TO IT DISPOSING OFF THE HOLD CLEANING WATER ASHORE ANOTHER ADDED COST. SAME GOES WITH SHORE BASED MAINTENANCE…..SHIP STAFF DOES IT WITH JUST MONTHLY SALARY DAY AND NIGHT WITH OUT REST, EACH MACHINE OVERHAULING BY SHORE PERSONNEL WILL CHARGED HEAVILY WE ALL KNOW THE COSTS AND WHY THE EU YARDS DIED. PROPERLY TRAINED AND GOOD SHORE SUPPORT ARE THE ONLY CHEAPEST WAY OF RUNNING MODERN SHIPS. MUST REMOVE THIS WHITE COLLAR STYLE CADET TRAINING, MUST GO BACK TO GOOD OLD STYLE OF CADET TRAINING 36 MONTHS ON BOARD AND NOT ASHORE IN A AC ROOMS.

  29. human error… LOL.
    can anybody clarify me that who is going to operate these vessels from shore.

  30. Due to volcanic activities new islanda may form, depth of sea bed may varies and there might be ice bergs floting . How the shore based controller can know about these things….
    There may be mines also
    How come a robot can find and act accordingly to that. ….??

  31. I’m a qualified deck officer who is struggling to get a job and you talk about shortage of seafarers

  32. This is absolute rubbish. at the end of the day it will still be controlled by humans, starting from the design of the vessel all the way to the steering and navigation. when docking how are you going to calculate the distance of the doc from the ship. who will be throwing the mooring lines. if the power goes out or their is a black out or engine failure or maybe the system crashes, how will we get to the ship?

    with all due respect to all. it is absolutely unbelievable what silly ideas people can come up with

  33. I work for unmanned vessels and I can conclude some things

    what happens when communications fail here is an answer ….for all unmanned systems there lies a Primary and backup command likewise the normal vessel do. if primary computer fails then the secondary server takes over, its unlike a normal vessel but similar to human being with a double concept …dual organ concept and for the master brain as well …meaning it will have two master brains like a fish one sleeps and other takes over.

    coming to blackouts ….that’s when we have the power management systems take over like ,solar,hybrid,diesel run,nuclear, the good things with hybrids are they can prolong the endurance of the vessels by main run on diesel and charging batteries and back and forth with several measures to keep the endurance on 24/7 .

    what happens when navigation systems fail that’s when the vessel will do astronomical computations is it possible yes . we have also tried out the obstacle avoidance systems meaning to say the vessel has the capability to do unmanned missions on a large scale it means the vessel can go without making collisions on multiple missions around the globe on autonomous criteria.

    it can do rev ramp control based on proximity and also heading corrections for missions and back home all by itself.
    The new era of planet will be robotics and a time will come when they start self repairs too believe it or not .I see some asking questions do you need humans well answer is yes to turn it on .

    the technology could be used to the extent of saving human lives is what I see for implementations than a strategy for marine trade and commerce.
    feel free to comment

  34. At sea , any machinery gone through break down or failure to operate… ..OK someone can say there will be stand by for that….but even though they are going very good machinery…have to some conditional maintenance… let see the future whether it going to fuck Seafarer or not ,due to dis brilliant intelligence technology….

  35. I hate the words shortage of seaman, there are a lot of seamans there and fresh graduates cadets that seeking for a seafarers career but said to say that you can only aplly if you have a backer in the compny and some are asking for bribe before you can join the company and then to the ship..

  36. No way. Safety would be way too compromised. Automate yes. Unmanned? No way. Dumb idea..

    I see the stat for himan error accidents. What I don’t see is the stat that tells us how many accidents have been avoided due to human operators thinking on their feet.

    This would kill jobs and people….

    Really bad idea…

    Unmanned ships is an idea that should be shelved now. Before it gets real and becomes a problem…

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