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Future Ships without Captain & Crew

Ship designers, their operators and regulators are gearing up for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with minimal or even no crew. Advances in automation and ample bandwidth even far offshore could herald the biggest change in shipping since diesel engines replaced steam.

Ship operators believe more automation will enable them to optimize ship use, including cutting fuel consumption. “The benefit of automation is as an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate,” said Palle Laursen, head of Maersk Line Ship Management, a unit of cargo-ship giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S.

British engine maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative involving other companies and universities. It foresees technologies long used to improve commercial airline operations migrating to ships. The group also is tapping know-how from those working on driverless cars to adapt for safe at-sea autonomous operations.

A future unmanned ship could resemble some of the most advanced combat drones. It would sport infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras and laser sensors to monitor its surroundings. The vast troves of data would be transmitted to command centers where staff do little more than monitor progress and ensure ships are operating at optimum speeds. Unmanned shipping could cut transport costs 22%. 

The first steps already are being taken. The Stella ferry, used in the Baltic and operated by Finferries, has been equipped with a variety of sensors including lasers and thermal cameras to assess whether such sensors could allow autonomous operations.

Capt. Thanasis Apostolopoulos, head of crews at Athens-based Springfield Shipping Co. and a sailor for 17 years, said the drive to unmanned ships may be inevitable. “It will be a sad day for seafarers when it happens,” he said. – Article published on WSJ

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