Rolls-Royce outlines vision for robotic ships of the future


March 6, 2014

Rendering of the robot ship of the future

Rendering of the robot ship of the future

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Running away to sea has been a dream of escape for centuries, but unless you plan to be a tap dancer on a cruise ship, that door may be closing. In a report on the future of cargo shipping, Rolls-Royce Vice President for Innovation, Engineering and Technology, Oskar Levander, outlines a vision for a time not far from now when freighters and other ships are unmanned robots that cruise the oceans under remote control by shore based captains.

Imagine it's 20 years from now and a cargo container ship bigger than anything afloat today approaches the port of Shanghai. Despite its size, it looks surprisingly simple with a hull designed for extreme efficiency. It has Flettner rotors for catching the wind and helping to save fuel, but below the slim equipment mast there's no superstructure. There’s no space for crew’s quarters, and there aren't even lifeboats or guardrails. When the pilot comes aboard to guide the ship into port from the minimalist bridge (if it has one) there’s no one to greet him or offer a cup of tea because the vessel is a robot, without a single person on board.

According to Levander, this scenario may come about because of the economic pressures being put upon the merchant fleets of the world. The Rolls-Royce report works on the assumption that the era of cheap energy is over and that rising fuel costs will require alternatives to the heavy fuel oil that currently powers the world’s shipping. In addition, shipping companies will have to contend with increasing burdensome national and international regulation, especially in regard to greenhouse gases, which will produce major rises in costs.

This will require a great deal of innovation, such as converting ships to burn biofuels, developing more efficient hulls, and installing solar panels or wind propulsion in the form of Flettner rotors and the like to cut down on energy bills. However, the biggest cost to shipping is labor – in fact, industry consultant Moore Stephens LLP put this expense at 44 percent in an interview with the BBC.

This cost isn't just in the form of salaries and pensions. Crews need living quarters, galleys, washing facilities recreation areas, lifeboats, and a lot of other things to keep them safe and comfortable. These cost money to build and maintain, as well as fuel to cart it all around the world. Rolls-Royce’s plan is to take an holistic approach to future ship design aimed at tackling the problem by incorporating new hulls, engines, solar power systems, and partial sails.

In all of this, the most radical is turning merchant ships into robotic craft, where Horatio Hornblower sails his ship all over the world without ever leaving Plymouth. That may not seem like much fun, but it’s a path that marine engineering has been on since the time when some ancient ship's master figured out how to balance his sails, so he wouldn't have to steer so much. Since then, all sorts of automatic steering and navigation mechanisms have been developed until today when it isn't uncommon to read news stories of ships steaming into port of their crews abandoned them prematurely in some disaster.

Even with the largest ship, steering a course is relatively simple and its rare for a helmsman to touch the wheel between ports. What’s really needed is the ability of a ship to pilot itself and keep watch under the guidance of shore operators. Many ships are already equipped with all sorts of cameras that can see at night and through fog, not to mention radar, sonar, GPS and a plethora of other sensors hooked up to high speed satellite data relays. Rolls-Royce foresees a time when these sensors and automatic systems will allow onshore crews to control and monitor ships from land-based centers with little difficulty.

Aside from the more obvious cost advantages, such an arrangement would allow one person ashore to control several ships. Levander sees this as both safer and making it easier to retain skilled crews, saying that it’s better for a ship to be operated by five operators on shore as opposed to 20 wrestling with the ship in a gale in the middle of the North Sea.

However, shiphandling is a complex task and a ship doesn't operate in isolation. Before robot ships can set sail, there are serious safety issues to be answered about collision avoidance and similar concerns. There are also many legal hurdles about responsibility for the ship and compliance with regulations and maritime law, which might see a token crew kept aboard with nothing to do except fulfill salvage law. If these and other objections can be overcome, then the seas may be a safer and more efficient place, albeit a less romantic one.

Source: Rolls-Royce

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

As a long-distance sailor, I have had more than one encounter with cargo ships that supposedly were fully crewed. In a couple, I could raise no one on the radio so was uncertain about their intentions. Being smaller (35') and more maneuverable, I took what evasive action I hoped was best/ Fortunately, the unresponsive vessels maintained course and speed, as expected under autopilot.

There is a maritime regulation about maintaining a proper lookout at all times. But maybe that doesn't apply if you're big enough and don't care.

James Smith

Energy requirements for crew quarters is an insignificant proportion of fuel used by the ship to travel.

If they are serious about energy saving we would see the mechanically deployable sails that were proposed some year back that claimed beyond 20% reduction per trip with ship engines status quo.


An open invite to modern-day pirates.....!


Surely, a more sensible solution to shipping costs is to cut out all these global movements of goods and produce in the first place. Let's get back to not having strawberries and other such items in mid winter just because it happens to be summer on the other hemisphere. When they do become available locally, they will taste so much the better for not being a common item in our diet.

Let's make goods where they are to be used. I.e. let's employ local people at local rates under local laws instead of exporting the jobs to countries that have poor labour and emissions controls and an attitude of 'to hell with people and planet'.

At least Rolls Royce recognises that we have extracted all the cheap oil and can see that prices will rise at the front end, which will lead to shortages in supply or retail prices will rise with all that that means for us and our way of life.

The oil supply parts of this article need to be read in conjunction with the Our Finite World's blog and the climate change component read in conjunction with Professor James Lovelock's latest work and the Nature Bats Last blog.

Afterwards, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only sensible option is to 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow ...'

Mel Tisdale

Obviously this is the way of the future. Actually, they would be BETTER than a "manned" ship, as they would be driven utilizing a multitude of devices. (Camera's, sonars, radars, GPS, alert systems, and of course "anti-boarding" devices…) Yes, there are those against the idea, but then, they are probably those who opposed the use of "unmanned" aircraft…. The only thing I see as a "down-side" is that JOBS are eliminated (maybe not when you consider the personnel needed to develop, install, and maintain the systems, as well as the "operators" working from shore…)


JPAR is on to something per pirates as a crew-less ship is a tempting target. Robo Pirates perhaps too? And without a crew, Salvage Rights will have to be re-written. Without a crew, what does one do if there is a malfunction, a mechanical breakdown? My Wife has crewed on a big Natural Gas transport, and there were lots of things to do, to keep tabs on, to adjust...

And yes, what about sails? You want to save on fuel oil, this would help.

I guess the folks at Rolls Royce can make a promise like in the film WESTWORLD, "Where nothing can go wrong. "


If they were made submarine, it eliminates or potentially eliminates many of the negatives. Just run 10 feet under, dive a little to get under other ships. It would be very difficult for pirates to do anything. Hard for them to even find it. It would not be like a military submarine that has to be able to go several hundred feet down. This would be maximum 150 feet. Perhaps even less. You can ignore the weather, most ocean traffic. Big retractable air scoop/exhaust port. Hold and compress enough air for 30 minutes operation or have a hybrid drive and some batteries for anytime it has to go lower than the air scoop.


Obviously whoever wrote this doesn't have a clue. Crews are mostly 3rd world so costs are minor, not 44 percent, likely well under 10 percent.

The whole crew could be put in one 30x40' cabin on the deck, just not that costly.

What will be costly is the first time it breaks down and they have to pay for a service call to the middle of the ocean.

And biggest problem, pirates. These ships will be boarded, robbed or completely taken by the various criminal gangs, making it not cost effective.

Then again the crew members steal so much shipping cars, etc you have to take the stereo, etc out as they will rip the dash apart causing $1,000's of damages on most every personal imported car I use to do the DOT/EPA on to make them US legal.


Great, we can automat everything, and nobody will need to work, but because no one will have no money there will be no one to buy the goods. A unfeedback loop.

Nelson Chick

This is all about as funny as Amazon and their delivery drones. Running underwater would take a great deal more power. Simply put, there is no way to run a ship without a crew. I'd like to see a helmsman try to keep his boat turned into the wavesin a storm, especially with the ify satellite coms you expect during a big blow. Also, you certainly couldn't remote pilot one into a harbor. Can you imagine unmanned ships sailing under the Golden Gate bridge headed for Oakland?


I'm an engine room engineer officer (not commissioned yet):

And this article strange and unrelated to reality from a company that should know what using a cargo ship entails in real life:.

Ships need constant maintenance: For example, on a container vessel you rebuild one of 4 refrigeration auxiliaries during every 4 month period at sea. Same goes for the rest: bilge cleaning, sloop tank filtering, oily water checks and discharge etc etc etc. A ship is a living, breathing machine that needs constant attention. If you don’t want to do that, be prepared to multiply the building cost. Its way more complicated than your average car. Even with daily, if not hourly checks, containers ships still loose way to many boxes that are a hazard to all.

Not to mention that even modern navigation equipment sometimes says something and does another: last year, after leaving Dublin, we sailed south east east until a point where the autopilot was to turn right, south south west to the gulf of Biscay. The autopilot veered north north east, towards the English coast. And told us it was on the right course, we let it sail for 3 hours to see if it would correct itself, but it kept sailing towards a point a 180° from its course. The GPS was beeping alarms, the plot was the wrong way etc but the autopilot was sending out reports it was on course. He rebooted to see if that would help, but it kept going the wrong way. In the end, the captain had enough, over rode it and turned the ship around. On restarting the autopilot stayed the new course as if it had been on it all along. Very disturbing. That’s why you need a deck crew constantly checking that the navigation equipment is not going nuts. I does not happen very often, but the results are far worse than ending up in a field because of your car’s GPS.

As for the emptiness of the ocean, that might be true if you are carrying cargo from a place that produces nothing to another place that buys nothing. The frequented sea lanes tend to get busy, and a 24 hour radar/nav watch is needed in case another ship comes too close or has a problem. There is no police or emergency first responders, that’s the other vessels in the immediate area duty. The captain and the crew are trained fire-fighters, evacuation personnel, medics and scene coordinators etc. Can a nerd in a office 10000km away do that?

A normal container ship is a 100m plus of steel, not a few 100 kilos of drone. You can't equate the two.

Navigation is not straight lines in an empty space: the weather, main local currents, temperature, wind charts and the prevision models might tell you something, but on board the reality is often very different (weather is localized, even at sea – 1000m might mean smooth water of a 100kmH squall). So the crew needs manage the drift and the engine load on a minute by minute basis to get the max efficiency possible. This weather also affect the way the engine works and the crew must modify the presents in accordance to general rules AND the specifics of a ship. 2% difference in efficiency might mean winning money or losing it. Fuel usage is measured in TONS per day.

I don’t know where the author got his numbers, about crew costs, but they are WAY off. The industry accepted numbers are that the fuel and the lubricants represent 70 to 80% of the lifetime costs of a cargo vessel. The rest is ship purchase, insurance, maintenance, harbour costs and crew costs. Crews, due to automatisation, are much smaller than before, but the IMO has kept them to a level that allows emergency operations like fire fighting or restarting a blackout with a high probability of success.

The author talks about human frailty, but machines are frail too. The 60 000kw main engine of a container vessel can be stopped by a 2mm3 freak particle in the injection system. What do you do then with no crew and captain? Let it drift or ruin an engine that cannot be replaced condemning the ship to the wreckers? No the captain takes control, the engine is stopped, while deck takes care of navigating, informing relevant authorities and warning others ships to stop them ramming you, the machine crew replaces the part or deactivates a cylinder till the next port. Everything is very expensive on a boat and is pushed to the max of its efficiency all the time.

The crew, both deck and machine, is the “part” that causes most accidents, but also prevents far more from ever occurring.

Gildas Dubois

still need some shore team to Service said ship in port IE manned labor force to Repair, install, update systems alone & to maintain hull from rust in drydock & OR make emergency AT Sea fixes IF warranted IE need flight deck for helicopter or VSTOL plane to acess. & some minimum qtrs. for stays over 3 days IF warranted. Otherwise Awesome

Stephen Russell

It's funny that some people on gizmag believe that human operators necessarily do better than computers. And piracy as a problem? Are these pirates going to load containers onto their little ships? Piracy is profitable precisely because there are crews on board that can be kidnapped.


I am very skeptical of the current interest in driverless cars and suspect that topic will fad quickly after the first fatal accident due to a software glitch. I hope crew-less ships never get to that stage, as the consequences of failure are simply too grave.

The article does bring up some emerging truths in shipping, as does the original source.

The most significant thing a ship operator can do to save energy is to slow down. However, capital and fixed operating costs can work to prevent that option. Already ships are run with very few people aboard. I doubt any insurer would be willing to expose themselves to the risks of not having a crew aboard that can safely manage things when systems begin to fail.

I think Mel is spot on in hos comment. The shipments, particularly high-value or perishable goods, traveling halfway around the globe are going to become a thing of the past, particularly as we run out of pockets of exploitable cheap labor.


What if? What if 3d printers and robots eventually manufacture everything on location and we don't even need all this shipping capacity? What if energy and road maintenance get so expensive that the interstate system is replaced by high speed rail service? What if most new jobs are done by remote terminal from home and you don't even drive to work anymore? What if pot were legalized so all the unemployed young people could just mellow out in front of the TV all day? Who cares about robotic ships? Where's the Twinkies?


Run a jammer, and let them all collide. Some very valid points above, wonder what rolls royce is actually getting at with something like this, they know they can't do without crew.

Craig Jennings

Given the recent article about how a large container ship pollutes annually as much as 50 Million cars, perhaps it's time to look at the true costs of non-local production. If ship pollution were factored in, it might just make the "cheap" goods from abroad look like a really bad deal. Furthermore, taxing the pollution couldn't be seen as a trade barrier but only an equitable arrangement.


Running a ship without a crew? Not likely. Too many variables that could spell disaster. Electronics are prone to failures and sabotage. Maybe in another 20 years of R & D. What's more important, and is immediately available, would be making all big ships nuclear-powered, using THORIUM technology (LFTR), which is ten times more efficient than present-day uranium-powered reactors, and is completely safe even if the ship sinks. The big ships burn crude oil, which makes enough pollution to equal millions of cars. So, the only real quantum-leap-forward is thorium energy.

John Carraway

Looks more and more like a 'pipe' dream than a logical progression of present day to me. I am leaning more and more towards stopping 90% of out-of-season shipping goods across the world, by sea or by freight plane. Hey! Let's automate cargo (and passenger?) planes as well, no having "over pilot time" waits at airports, just fire her up and go! The pilots can sack out back at base for a couple of hours and then fly on refreshed to the airports. Locked cockpit compartments, no hijackings, no worries! Battery pack shorted out? OOOOPS!

The Skud

If you want to replace the crew on boats, first replace the pilots that are required to bring a foreign flag vessel in to a country's port with teleoperated remotely controlled piloting devices. When you've got the teleoperation good enough that countries no longer require pilots to be physically present on board the vessel, then look at replacing other crew members.

John Banister

Good luck replacing pilots... the ones at Antwerp need retraining a few times a year to be up to date on constantly shifting sands. And have to react "on the fly" to radar and sonar. Even doing illogical things that would have a computer saying "I can't let you do that Dave".

Boats are all automated as it is, the crew is mainly for maintenance (the costliest thing you can do to a boat is dry docking it), unforeseeable emergencies and port operations.

A second person said that the only way to reduce crews further is to change power source, thorium does seem the best long term option.

A different commenter was complaining about the pollution, well cargo ships are about 50/55% efficient. A car struggles to go above 15. We are right now in a technological impasse, if we reduce CO2 more, we get too much NOX... Adding natural gas or opposed cylinder constructions are some of the present research paths. (the big problem is old boats run to the ground by shitty owners - a bit like unlicensed beaters on roads).

Another problem with crew sizes, is that ships can burn or have structural failures (no machine is perfect), so the IMO has requirements about safety plans and interventions. This SOLAS regulation (distant relative to the Titanic fallout) means that it's not considered safe to sail with less than 15/17 people on ocean going vessel. These regulations are a bit lax, and in real life you need 20/25. Reducing this number is asking for trouble. A lot of big, very polluting trouble.

This articles reeks of "let the intern do his thing". Not of something serious written by someone who has ever seen a real boat up close.

If need be, contact me, and I will send you a copy of a small chemical carriers manual to give you an idea of the complexity of the systems.

Gildas Dubois
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