Rolls-Royce’s Drone Shipbots Will Rule Tomorrow’s Oceans, Shipping Containers

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If you’re rooting for the drone team, then chalk up another win: Rolls-Royce is working on unmanned cargo ships that would roam the Earth’s oceans packed with crates of goods, controlled by captains safe on shore using virtual reality facilities to pilot their fleets. In other words, tomorrow’s salty tales of ghost ships with no one left on board could be all too verifiable and hardly cause for alarm.

Bloomberg reports on the project, which aims to make the seafaring shipping industry safer, less expensive and easier on the environment. The market is worth $375 billion annually, and despite our mastering of flight, we shill ship 90 percent of traded goods over the waves, according to the article. These automated versions would aim to make that huge volume safer and more efficient, but of course it’ll have to contend with a variety of concerns first, including worries about safety and labour concerns from unions and workers.

Stripping all those accommodations needed by fleshy human labor from the huge cargo liners would clear up even more room for cargo, according to Rolls-Royce’s early designs – while also making them 5 percent lighter, with 12 to 15 percent less fuel burn per trip. Plus you’re saving up to $3,300 per day in crew costs, which currently make up 44 percent of the total overall operating expenses for manned ocean-bound shipping.

Before you get too excited there, Mr. Shipping Magnate, know that these things are currently probably at least a decade out from being anywhere near sea legal, and the largest union on the sea vocally opposes the idea outright, saying that drone ships are no replacement for human intellect and perception. Plus, if these ever replace our current waterborne shipping mechanisms, future generations will never experience coming-of-age stories like the one depicted in David Mamet’s Lakeboat (warning: this contains all the cusses so watch the volume if you’re at work).

Despite all the cautioning, however, there’s no question that logistics companies are hungry for this kind of automation, since it means cheaper prices overall decades down the road, plus faster and more efficient delivery from warehouse to customer (especially important as more shopping moves online). People will not accept the coming shipping bots readily, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still arrive eventually. And the waves will be waiting.