Unmanned freighters might be on the horizon

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A lot is being written these days about unmanned cars hitting the road — or each other as the case might be. But how about the possibility of boaters dodging unmanned ships?

No, I haven’t joined the crowd that wants to legalize pot down here in Florida and turn the official state color to purple haze. But unmanned ships could be closer than we think.

Rolls-Royce just unveiled its vision for land-based control centers that it claims will remotely monitor and control tomorrow's unmanned ships. According to reports in Marine Log Daily News, Rolls-Royce sees a future in which a crew of just seven to 14 people control and monitor the operation of a vessel fleet across the globe. Using interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms and surveillance drones, this small crew would monitor what’s happening both on board and around the ship.

"We're living in an ever-changing world where unmanned and remote-controlled transportation systems will become a common feature of human life,” says Liro Lindborg, Rolls-Royce general manager of remote and autonomous Operations, Ship Intelligence.

“They offer unprecedented flexibility and operational efficiency,” he continues, “and our research aims to understand the human factors involved in monitoring and operating ships remotely. It identifies ways crews ashore can use tools to get a realistic feel for what is happening at sea."

The research being done for Rolls-Royce has explored the lessons learned from other industries where remote operations are commonplace. These include aviation, energy, defense and space exploration.

In concept, at least, the autonomous ship doesn’t remove humans entirely, as is sometimes stated, according to researchers. Unmanned ships will need to be monitored and controlled, but this will require entirely new kinds of work roles, tasks, tools and environments. The future shore control center concept has been designed by emphasizing the user experience of the human operators. By focusing on the operators' point of view, it is possible to introduce meaningful, pleasurable and engaging new roles for the ships' shore control center professionals, according to Eija Kaasinen, principal scientist at VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd.

A six-minute film by Rolls-Royce (above) is fascinating and marks the final stage of research that will inform the design and construction of a project demonstrator before the end of this decade. An effective remote operations center is essential to the company's plans to develop the autonomous and remote controlled vessels.

I recall writing a blog about a speech by National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich in which he urged us to “Become comfortable being uncomfortable.” Since I fish a lot around the entrance to Tampa Bay and a steady stream of cruise ships and freighters, thinking some guy in Finland is at the controls does make me “uncomfortable.” Seems Dammrich was right.


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