Just a few year short years ago, the very notion of a massive cargo ship making a transcontinental voyage with nary a living soul aboard would be largely dismissed by the masses as a preposterous bit of nautical transport fantasy-making.

But a lot can happen in just a few short years. Self-driving delivery trucks are now hauling precious cargo (2,000 cases of Budweiser, to be exact) without incident, drones are dropping donuts from the sky and autonomous airport shuttle buses are making pilot runs in the Netherlands.

This all considered, deliberate ghost ships don’t seem all that impossible. And by the estimates of Rolls-Royce, they're not all that far off either.

“It’s not if, it’s when,” asserted Oskar Levander, VP of Innovation for Rolls-Royce Marine, at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium held in Amsterdam this past June. “The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist.”

As detailed in a substantial report released at the symposium by the venerated British engine-maker and power systems provider, unnamed cargo ships could be hitting the open sea as soon as 2020 — that’s decades before self-driving cars are forecasted to reach true ubiquity. And when they do, Mikael Makiken, president of Rolls-Royce Marine, promises that autonomous and remote-controlled commercial freighters will be “as disruptive as the smart phone.”

Remote-controlled cargo ship concept, Rolls-Royce Unmanned cargo ships are envisioned as an efficient and cost-effective method to transport goods. (Rendering: Rolls-Royce)

Rolls-Royce’s 88-page white paper is quick to point out one of the key cost-cutting benefits of a cargo ship completely stripped of its captain and crew: lots more space for cargo.

When there are no people on board, many constraints of the ship layout are removed. One of the most obvious is the removal of the accommodation and with that the entire deckhouse. This will save cost, weight and space, as well as enable the ship to carry more cargo. A ship contains systems that are only there to serve the crew. Their removal will simplify the entire ship, which should improve reliability and productivity while reducing build and operating costs.

Other perks include increased fuel efficiency and, presumably, far less cussin’. In all, Levandar estimates that unmanned shipping would offer a 22 percent cost reduction compared to vessels that come equipped with a living, breathing crew.

What’s more, the report goes onto to state that while a human-free cargo vessel will reduce, obviously, the chances for human operational error, a new set of risks and challenges do emerge including increased vulnerability to security issues (cyber piracy!) and the absence of all-hands-on-deck-type maintenance tasks, some more urgent than others.

Conventional ships appear to rely strongly on the crew on-board as an in situ resource for timely failure recovery at sea and execution of preventative maintenance programs online during the sea voyage. This allows using less costly machinery configurations that require frequent preventative maintenance actions and have lower reliability with respect to failures repairable at sea.

Somewhat resembling surfaced submarines, the streamlined, sensor-equipped vessels envisioned by Rolls-Royce (side note: the company has long produced nuclear submarines) would operate both autonomously through computer programming, via human-assisted remote control or, most realistically, a hybrid of both — it really all depends on the mission at hand. Moving across open seas, a crew-free cargo ship could go into robo-cruise mode and operate at a fully autonomous level.


While navigating through harbors and in areas with heavy marine traffic, the same vessel could then kick into remote-control mode as an operator working out of a land-bound central control hub guides the ship — and possibly several other ships — in and out of port with a joystick-type device. The above video depicts what exactly might happen in a mission control center-esque remote facility as a trio of attractive personnel with vague European accents (Henrik, Laura and Carl with the lush ponytail) troubleshoot an engine issue aboard an autonomous ship.

And while these self-driving ships may be able to dock themselves in an autonomous fashion, it would seem that human hands, not robots, will always be needed to secure the vessels to docks with good, old fashioned ropes. Currently, the International Maritime Organization, the UN agency that regulates shipping activity, requires all ships to be "sufficiently and efficiently" manned and staunchly prohibits the operation of unmanned ships.

Currently being developed and tested in Finland, the technology is only being envisioned thus far for commercial cargo ships. (On a much smaller scale, autonomous “roboats” are due to be tested on Amsterdam’s famed canals starting next year). But you never know, maybe crew-free (or crew-lite) passenger cruise liners may be on the horizon. After all, Japanese hotels exclusively staffed by robots have already arrived. The unholy marriage of autonomous ships and robot-based hospitality seems like an appropriate and completely terrifying next step.

Just imagine, a cruise boat commandeered by a computer and staffed by hundreds of non-sentient crew members including robotic wait staff and a cruise director that’s more akin to C3PO than Julie McCoy. If that's not a decent set-up for a sci-fi at-sea horror film than I don't know what is.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Autonomous cargo ships may set sail by 2020
Will unmanned freighters be as 'disruptive as the smart phone?'