Transportation Update: Crewless Drone Ships in our Near Future?

December 31, 2013 – Are robo-ships going to be plying the sea lanes in the 2020s?  If Rolls-Royce has their way we will see crewless ships on the high seas within the next two decades. The reasons are several:


  1. Robo-ships require no human life support systems on board. No sewage treatment. No galley. No place for berths and beds.
  2. Robo-ships would be lighter in weight without a crew compliment and the infrastructure mentioned above.
  3. Robo-ships would use less fuel leading to savings between 10 and 30% in operating costs.
  4. Robo-ships would have much greater cargo capacity.
  5. Robo-ships could sail at close quarters in convoys with a lead ship controlling navigation and collision avoidance for all.


Robo-ships would be controlled from virtual land based bridges, or from a master bridge on board a single ship. The bridge would be electronically connected to a dozen or more ships each with on board global positioning. remote navigation and collision detection systems, and supported by 360 degree cameras, sonar and radar.

These next generation crewless ships would have multiple redundancy built into all systems to protect from any single or multiple system failure. And to deal with piracy the ships would be fitted with a range of countermeasures that could easily disable anyone unauthorized who attempts to board.

The technology already exists to make this happen today. But the regulation don’t. These will have to be rewritten.

But there is no doubt that ship owners will look favorably on this development. That’s because they are finding it more difficult to attract young people to become merchant sailors. (The incidence of piracy haven’t helped either.)

As a result the European Commission is funding a study to determine the feasibility of what Rolls Royce is proposing and to define a new set of regulations to govern this technological advancement. So will we see robotic fleets in our ports in the next decade? Probably not in the decade but certainly before 2030. Remember it wasn’t that long ago that no one believed crewed military aircraft could be replaced by weapons-carrying robotic drones managed remotely from thousands of kilometers away.


robotic ship fleet


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...