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Published: Wednesday June 18, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday June 18, 2014 MYT 11:07:16 AM

Dear pirates, nobody's home: Creating crewless ships

Remote-controlled vessels allow more space for cargo and no hostages for pirates.

A FLEET of giant cargo ships, up to almost 400m long and wider than a motorway, are to crisscross the world’s oceans without a captain or crew on board.

The remote-controlled vessels, which could set sail within the decade, are the latest development in the growing trend for unmanned vehicles, with drone aircraft already flying and Google planning to introduce driverless cars.

Rolls-Royce, the British engineering company developing the ships, claims the unmanned vessels will be cheaper, greener and safer than those with a full complement of captain and crew.

“It’s about making the ships safer,” said Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s head of marine innovation and technology. “If you look at most (marine) accidents, they are happening because of human error – a lack of concentration and people becoming tired. We can provide a safer, more comfortable and better way of steering the ship.”

Levander said marine technology had progressed so fast in recent years that most of the steering and control of ships was already automated, relieving captains of many of their traditional duties.

Under Rolls-Royce’s plan, captains will be relocated from the bridges of ships to unremarkable office blocks in London, Singapore or Oslo, from where they will control fleets of ships on big screens akin to air traffic control centres.

“Maybe a captain can operate 10 ships ... it might be easier to have a pool of 10 captains in control of 100 ships,” said Levander, a Finn working at Rolls-Royce’s research centre in Alesund, Norway.

Captaining the ships will amount to little more than watching blinking lights travel across a computer screen. “Then, when it approaches port, control of the ship is passed to a full bridge simulator with 360° views.”

Levander said the simulators would provide captains with a far better view of the vessel and any obstacles than they would have from the bridge.

Levander brushes aside concerns that the ships could pose a danger to other seafarers and the environment. “We have drone aircraft flying, we have [drone] helicopters, we have Google cars. These are situations where you need to react in a fraction of a second, with ships you have a lot of margin. A ship isn’t going to run up and hit me,” he said.

If a ship does get into difficulties, spring a leak or lose the satellite link to the control centre it will “go into safe mode, stop and float there until someone comes”.

The technology, which will be tested on a real ship off the coast of Alesund in the next few months, will be used only on bulk cargo vessels and not passenger ships. The real benefit is seen in ocean-going tankers and bulk freighters, where remote control would cut operating costs by up to 30%.

Winning approval from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the global regulator of shipping, is likely to take some time.

Not having crews will remove the need for heating, air conditioning, sewage systems and lifeboats, freeing up even more space for cargo. It will also lead to a comprehensive redesign of ships, stripping out the bridge, handle rails and access points, allowing a sleeker shape and making life much harder for pirates.

“If you take the crew away, there is much less interest for the pirates because there are no hostages,” Levander said.

“Even if they do get on board, what are they going to do? You can remotely shut down the ship. They can sit there on the ship but they cannot steer it. You can steer them to the nearest military base.” – Guardian News & Media

Tags / Keywords: Science Technology, Science, Technology, drone cargo vessel, Rolls Royce, revolutionise

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