A European Union-funded project wants to automate the process of shipping cargo across seas.

Photo Credit: Factor

Photo Credit: Factor

Automated cargo ships will be shipping food and minerals without any human crew by 2035. The 656-foot ships will provide a safer and more environmentally-friendly method for transporting cargo.

“There aren’t many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today,” said researcher Ørnulf Rødseth. “Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 percent of today’s vessel accidents.”

According to Factor, an onshore control center would operate the ships, allocating 10 vessels to one person. Researchers say a lot of the technology for such a system already exists.

“The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists,” said Rødseth. “Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems. It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry.”

One potential issue would be proving that the unmanned vessels and the technology used is as safe as current vessels. Other issue is the use of fuel. Current ships use heavy oil fuels which require regular maintenance.

“Less expensive, liquid natural gas might be the answer here”, said Rødseth. “But this will involve designing the vessels from scratch.” Researchers are also considering having a team of maintenance bots onboard.

Automated cargo ships have clear benefits. They would cut costs from wages and possibly even fuel. This of course poses another issue -- will the industry accept technology that would leave so many workers unemployed? 

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