Unmanned Cargo Ships: Pros, Cons and Next Steps

Unmanned Cargo Delivery Concept – Chronicle 05

The ReVolt is Coming! (October 09, 2014)

(Editor’s Note: Throwback to my first LinkedIn article regarding unmanned cargo)

The ReVolt is coming! Not the long speculated “rise of the machines”, but rather the latest model of the next generation, battery powered, unmanned short-sea cargo vessels.

Last month at SSM Hamburg, DNV GL released concept details for the zero-emission ReVolt which will be powered by a 3000kWh battery, be able to carry 100 TEU and have a range of 100 nautical miles before needing to recharge. Featuring an autonomous navigation system, it would require no crew or crew facilities thereby increasing ship capacity and reducing operating costs.

Will the logistics chain be changed forever?

The Vision

The concept of unmanned cargo ships has been around for decades, but only recently with the advent of technology promoting the possibility of driverless cars (Google Cars) and tiny unmanned delivery aircraft (Amazon Prime Air) has the concept become more feasible.

Although there are still all kinds of technical, economic and regulatory problems that must be overcome to make the unmanned-cargo-ship-as-a-crucial-link-in-the-logistics-supply-chain scenario a reality, there is substantial research currently going on that will accelerate the coming of age of drone ships.

Earlier this year in Norway, the Blue Ocean Development Team of famed auto and engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce set up a prototype 360-degee virtual reality vessel bridge that captains will be able to use on land to command crewless ships (Rolls Royce). Further South, the European Union is currently funding a 3.8 million Euro (~4.8 million USD) study entitled the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks with the aim of developing and validating the autonomous ship concept as well as furthering the technology necessary for unmanned ships to deliver their cargo safely and reliably to their intended destination.

So what are the advantages/disadvantages of unmanned cargo ships?

Pros

  • Minimization of high maintenance parts such as rotational components. Data shows repair and maintenance expenditures are expected to rise by 2.5 to 3 % annually for container ships.
  • Elimination of harmful emissions. For example, the Emma Maersk, the biggest container ship in service back in 2007, generates 40 tons of CO2 when transporting a full load – more than what a 5-member household in Germany generates in 1 year.
  • Decrease of human error risk and the resulting associated accidents. Currently, there are about 900 fatalities per year occurring in shipping.
  • Reduction of fuel costs. At 11,000 TEU, for example, the Emma Maersk burns 14,000 liters (~3,700 gallons) of heavy oil per hour.
  • Offsetting the expected shortage of seafarers in the future. There is an expected shortfall of approximately 21,700 officers by 2018.
  • Reduction of total operating expenses. Crew costs today run about 3,299 USD (~2,600 Euro) a day, accounting for 44% of total operating cost for a large container ship.

Cons

  • Reduction of seafarer jobs. Job cuts would directly affect the 610,000 officers in the currently estimated supply work force.
  • Unknown safety risks. Current machines are unable to replicate the human element (i.e. experience and reaction) of professional seafarers.
  • Vulnerability to computer hackers hijacking control.

Next Steps

There’s no denying where technology is heading. The creation and implementation of drone ships is inevitable. They appear to be safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly – benefits that greatly appeal to the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade, as Rolls Royce estimates.

There are still a lot of hurdles to be overcome, but what if these unmanned ships became a reality? How would the average Joe be impacted?

If short-sea unmanned ships become a reality, it may not be long before today’s biggest cargo container vessels (the Triple E class megaships) will also be unmanned. Although these 399 m (~1309 ft) long and 59 m (~194 ft) wide behemoths would still require piloting near the ports as currently envisioned, the idea of these giants being nearly autonomous is still quite alarming.

Taking it a step further, will unmanned aerial drones transfer standard 20-foot cargo containers from ship to land? Will they fly off cargo decks to their warehouse destination inland while hovering above you with their 28,200 kg (~62,170 lb) payload as you cruise down the highway?

And how would they fit into the cargo city or aerotropolis concept? It would certainly be a boost to the synchromodal hub concept and it would definitely thrill retailers who currently experience up to 2 week delays due to port congestion.

For now, only a detailed 1:20 scale model of the ReVolt exists, built to demonstrate the ship’s autonomous capabilities and to test design features. Nevertheless, as technology progresses, the cargo drone ship concept will continue to develop, waiting for the day to come to a port near you.

What are your thoughts on unmanned cargo ships? Comment below!

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