Last week, we brought you Daimler’s self-driving 18-wheelers. This week, check out Rolls-Royce’s autonomous cargo ships that promise to transform the $4 trillion global shipping industry.

Remote-control boats are no longer just for hobbyists. Soon, behemoth autonomous cargo vessels powered by high-tech software could help ferry the billions of tons of goods shipped across the oceans every year.

Experts at Rolls-Royce are hoping to take an unmanned cargo ship prototype live in the not-so-distant future. The prototype, a computer-simulated model, is already running at the company’s Norwegian office.

Reducing Costs, Congestion


The ships are being developed by Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team with a nearly $5 million grant from the European Union. The project aims to reduce crowding in European seas and help the maritime shipping industry comply with increasingly strict environmental requirements. Plus, there’s an added benefit: cost savings.

The trick? Eliminating the bridge, kitchens, the mess deck and infrastructure such as air-conditioning and sewage necessary to keep a human crew safe and comfortable. As a result, Rolls-Royce’s unmanned ships could store more cargo and would use 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel. Unloaded weight could also fall by as much as 5 percent.

A Regulatory Battle

But there are several caveats — namely around safety and legality. (Unmanned ships are illegal under current international law, which set a minimum crew requirement.)


In response to these concerns, Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, tells Bloomberg that a drone ship has the potential to be even safer than the human-piloted ships currently sailing the oceans. According to an Allianz report, human error is to blame for most maritime accidents.

Though this technology may not be ready to join the ranks of the driverless tractors, backhoes and 18-wheelers already operating in our fields and on our roads, Simon Bennett of the International Chamber of Shipping tells Newsweek that we can expect (ghost) ships to operate within 20 to 30 years.