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    Why Skipperless Ships Might Not Be as Easy to Introduce as Driverless Cars

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    Rolls-Royce is building a new Research & Development facility in Finland and says it hopes to design the first remote-controlled ship by the end of the decade. But what are the drawbacks of skipperless ships?

    No ship's captain is perfect.

    But for every Titanic and Costa Concordia there are a thousand other disasters which were averted because of the quick thinking of a trusty old seadog.

    But now Rolls-Royce wants to do away with ship's crews altogether.

    They are plowing ahead with research into "autonomous" ships at their state-of-the-art R&D facility in Turku, Finland.

    Finland was chosen because it combines a strong shipbuilding tradition with a thriving high-tech sector.

    Rolls-Royce's President Marine, Mikael Makinen, said: "Digitalization will transform the shipping industry in the years ahead, and the time is now right to set out how we are going to make this happen."

    "By combining our world leading capability and knowledge, with a clear plan of where we need to go next, we can work with our customers, governments and our global academic research network to develop and bring to market the advanced technology, products and supporting services needed both 'on-vessel' and 'on-shore' to make our vision of future remote and autonomous ships a reality."

    Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's Vice President Innovation, said recently new technology would allow jobs to be transferred from ship to shore, which would make the industry more attractive to young people, who often baulk at the idea of the ocean-going life.

    In an age of computer games it may be that skilled young gamers would be able to transfer some of those skills to remotely controlling ships.

    Images released by Rolls-Royce show future ships without any accommodation blocks or bridges.

    Although they may appear more vulnerable to pirate attacks off the coast of places like Somalia, in fact they could be designed in such a way that the pirates were unable to get into the ship itself and would be powerless to override its remote control steering.

    ​While on land driverless car technology is powering forward with Uber, Tesla and several others running pilot schemes and Baidu recently announcing plans to launch their own technology in July this year.

    The US Navy is also going ahead with a "drone ship" which would hunt Russian and Chinese submarines.

    And it is not just Rolls-Royce who is exploring skipperless ship technology in the commercial world.

    Norwegian nitrogen fertilizer firm Yarm has teamed up with the Kongsberg technology company to produce an all-electric vessel.

    The Yara Birkeland, will carry ammonia and fertilizer from the company's factory in southern Norway to the nearby towns of Brevik and Larvik. It will initially work with a crew but by 2020 the plan is to operate it completely unmanned.

    Eilidh Smith, a marine consultant with Aberdeen-based Marex, told Sputnik she had been taking a great industry in skipperless ship technology but she did not think it would be introduced quickly.

    "It's going to be taking jobs away from seafarers…and that is obviously one of the reasons they want to bring it in because one of the biggest costs of running a ship is the crew," she told Sputnik.

    But Ms. Smith told Sputnik the world's waters were governed by the International Maritime Organization's Collision Regulations, which insist that any ship at sea has a crew of humans.

    Rule 5 of the regulations requires that "every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision."

    That assumes a human being would be "maintaining the proper look out" rather than a remotely controlled computer.

    "To me that is the biggest point. How would someone on board another vessel know if there was anyone on board? When you are in danger of a collision you have a fair idea of what the other skipper is going to do but not if they have no-one on board," Ms. Smith said. 

    "If you're approaching another vessel you are trained to alter course to starboard or just stop but what will these ships do?"

    Ms. Smith said ships already have autopilot systems but she said they use more fuel than manual steering because they stick rigidly to a course rather than taking into account weather and sea conditions like an experienced captain.

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    Tags:
    sea, remote-controlled, captain, unmanned ships, vessel, cargo ship, Rolls-Royce, Norway, Finland
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