Self-driving ships nearer to reality than you might think

A move to ships with no crew, or virtually no crew, is inevitable, according to Esa Jokioinen, head of a specialist marine research team at Rolls-Royce, quoted in the latest blog from The Optimist.

“This is part of an evolution that is happening not only in marine, but in all modes of transportation—trucks, airplanes, and ships,” he says.

Jokioinen says that crewless vessels could save up to 22% on a per-mile basis.

The main benefits come from having no need for a bridge, a deckhouse, freshwater and wastewater systems, air conditioning, etc.

Removing these saves electricity and leaves more room for cargo, and allows for a flatter, more aerodynamic design, minimizing drag and increasing fuel efficiency.

Jokioinen sees a gradual shift to automation, starting with docking procedures. In the open ocean, an operator might oversee five to eight vessels simultaneously.

Rolls-Royce is working on various prototypes in Finland, including a navigation system and sensors incorporating visual and thermal cameras, radar and lidar.

Jokioinen expects the first automated demonstrator ships to appear before 2020, starting with vessels in national waters. In international waters more complex regulatory changes will be required, so he expects automated vessels not to appear before 2025.

Cybersecurity and digital piracy were described by Jokioinen as “the elephant in the room”, but ultimately he does not see the risks of automation outweighing the benefits.