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Rolls-Royce is developing drone cargo ships

Rolls-Royce is developing drone cargo ships

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Drones are already patrolling the skies, and eventually Rolls-Royce wants to see them take over the seas too. According to Bloomberg, Rolls-Royce Holdings is developing unmanned cargo ships that can be remotely controlled by captains using a virtual-reality recreation of a vessel's bridge. Development on the ships began last year, and it expects the unmanned ships to eventually offer a safer, cleaner, and less-expensive option for moving cargo.

"Technology is at the level where we can make this happen."

"Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction," Oskar Levander, a marine engineering and technology executive at Rolls-Royce, tells Bloomberg. "If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move."

While now may be Rolls-Royce's time to start moving, it's far from the time when these ships will set sail. As Bloomberg points out, there are quite a few regulatory and financial hurdles in the way of unmanned vessels, including international minimum crew requirements and an ineligibility for being insured by major providers. And, as when it comes to self-driving cars taking over the roads, there are already plenty of concerns about what could go wrong when humans are removed from the picture.

Levander acknowledges to Bloomberg that it won't be a quick transition, and he makes it clear that Rolls-Royce Holdings — the aircraft and ship engineering firm now separate from the BMW-owned automaker — is instead trying to get ahead of the pack. Its vision is appealing: by removing the crew, the bridge, and other equipment needed to support good living conditions, ships would reportedly be 5 percent lighter and burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel. Supporting the crew reportedly accounts for around 44 percent of total operating expenses on a large container ship as well, so there could eventually be an obvious path to savings.

Bloomberg reports that it could be a pricy path to get there though, as Rolls-Royce will have to develop new safety and backup equipment to handle potential machine failures. "It’s a given that the remote-controlled ship must be as safe as today," Levander tells Bloomberg. "But we actually think it can be even much safer than today." There's no word on how long development of the systems might take or what Rolls-Royce is doing to address its regulatory hurdles, but at least with self-driving cars, we've seen that lawmakers have been open to letting machine-controlled systems begin testing — so long as the right safety systems are in place.