A fleet of giant cargo ships, up to almost a quarter of a mile long and wider than a motorway, are to crisscross the world's oceans without a captain or crew on board.
The remote-controlled vessels, which could set sail within the decade, are the latest development in the growing trend for unmanned vehicles, with drone aircraft already flying and Google planning to introduce driverless cars.
"It's about making the ships more safe," said Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's head of marine innovation and technology. "If you look at most accidents in marine they are happening because of human error – a lack of concentration and people becoming tired. We can provide a safer, more comfortable and better way of steering the ship."
Levander said marine technology had progressed so fast in recent years that most of the steering and control of ships was already automated, relieving captains of many of their traditional duties for large parts of long voyages.
"If you think about a captain today, most of the work he does every day is on [managing] the crew and bureaucracy – he is more of an administration person, but he is still trained in operating a ship," Levander said. "You have these highly trained people but they only operate the ship a small part of the time – why not have them operate ships all the time?"
Under Rolls-Royce's plan captains will be relocated from the bridges of ships to unremarkable office blocks in London, Singapore or Oslo, from where they will control fleets of ships on big screens akin to air traffic control centres.
"Maybe a captain can operate 10 ships … it might be easier to have a pool of 10 captains in control of 100 ships," said Levander, a Finn working at Rolls-Royce's Blue Ocean research centre in Ålesund, a small town known for its art nouveau architecture on Norway's remote western coast eight hours' drive from Oslo.
For most the of voyage, captaining the ships will amount to little more than watching blinking lights travel across a computer screen. "Then, when it approaches port, control of the ship is passed to a full bridge simulator with 360° views."
Levander said the simulators, which are already used for crew training and will be hooked up to dozens of cameras on the ships, would provide captains with a far better view of the vessel and any obstacles than they would have from the bridge. "If we're going to do this, it must be as safe if not safer," he said. "We can create a better view of reality. The camera can see better than the human eye, they can spot objects in the water that the human eye cannot."
Levander brushes aside concerns that the ships could pose a danger to other seafarers and the environment. "We have drone aircraft flying, we have [drone] helicopters, we have Google cars – these are situations where you need to react in a fraction of a second, with ships you have a lot of margin. A ship isn't going to run up and hit me," he said.
"The point is, who is normally in danger if you hit something? It is the crew on the ship, they are the ones that get injured. It is safer if they are not there in the dangerous position."
If a ship does get into difficulties, spring a leak or lose the satellite link to the control centre it will "go into safe mode, stop and float there until someone comes".
The technology, which will be tested on a real ship off the coast of Ålesund in the next few months, will be used only on bulk cargo vessels and not passenger ships. Levander said the technology would be used on cargo cable ferries (which are guided across rivers on cables) within the next couple of years, "but the real benefit will be in ocean going tankers and bulkers", where remote control would cut operating costs by up to 30%.
Spotting the potential cost savings, cargo companies are keen to get remote-controls ships on the water soon, but winning approval from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the global regulator of shipping, is likely to take some time. If approval is granted, Levander reckons more than half of the world's bulk cargo ships will become remote-controlled, with container ships following later. "We have ship owners who are seriously interested, but they know they are not going to sign the contract on them this year or next year – it will take some time."
The new technology is likely to be most popular in northern Europe, where most marine technology is developed and where crew wages are the most expensive.
The prospect of remote-controlled ships comes as cargo companies are beginning to struggle to find people willing to spend months at sea on not hugely generous wages. "Young people don't want to go into shipping any more, it's not attractive," Levander said. "In the past you joined up to see the world, today you take a low-cost airline ticket and go."
The EU is funding a €3.8m (£3m) study into the safety and feasibility of unmanned vessels. The maritime unmanned navigation through intelligence in networks (Munin) programme said: "Seagoing professions are increasingly perceived as unattractive these days."
"Remote-control shipping will also make a captain's life more appealing as they will no longer have to leave their families for months on end," Levander said. "We can provide the possibility of working in shipping but doing it from an office near your home where you can drive back home after a day's work.
"In the future, we would like to spread them [the shipping control centres] out around the world so you only have daytime jobs."
Not having crews will remove the need for heating, air conditioning, sewage systems and lifeboats, freeing up even more space for cargo. It will also lead to a comprehensive redesign of ships, stripping out the bridge, handle rails and access points, allowing a sleeker shape and making life much harder for pirates attempting a hijacking.
"If you take the crew off you have much less interest for the pirates because you don't have hostages," Levander said.
"Even if they do get on board what are they going to do? You can remotely shut down the ship. They can sit there on the ship in the middle of the ocean but they cannot steer it – you can drive them to the nearest military base."
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