ENGINEERING OUTFIT Rolls Royce is working on a plan that it once considered unthinkable, a fleet of unmanned robot ships that will sail the oceans under the control of one man.
While we might be close to self-driving cars, self-sailing ships are a new proposition. The robot armada is introduced on the Rolls Royce website under the headline "Thinking the unthinkable" and presented as an alternative to hosting engineering works and monitoring people on the water.
"Sometimes what was unthinkable yesterday is tomorrow's reality. So now it is time to consider a roadmap to unmanned vessels of various types. Steps have already been taken, mainly in the naval area. On the way, certain functions will be moved ashore," said Oskar Levander, Rolls Royce VP for innovation, engineering and technology.
It wouldn't be a dramatic move, apparently, and Rolls Royce said that many ships are already well placed to become monitored Mary Celestes.
"Vessels are already equipped with cameras that can see at night and through fog and snow, and have systems to transmit large volumes of data," said Levander. He asked, "Is it better to have a crew of 20 sailing in a gale in the North Sea, or say five in a control room on shore?"
He added, "When 'fleet optimisation' is considered, the advantages compound. The same person can monitor and steer many ships. As conditions ashore are often preferred, it will also help retain qualified and competent crew, and is safer."
Mostly unmanned ships would need some redesigning, he said, and perhaps would be best suited to shuttling between a handful of destinations.
"Many facilities and systems on board are only there to ensure that the crew is kept fed, safe, and comfortable," he added. "Eliminate or reduce the need for people, and vessels could be radically simplified. Attitudes and ways of working will need to change, but safe operation is possible, particularly for vessels running between two or three fixed points." µ