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By 13 February 2017 | Categories: news

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Popeye the Sailor might soon be looking for another job. That is, if Rolls-Royce’s plans of autonomous ships pick up speed. According to Sky News, the company is set to release its first fleet of crewless ships as soon as 2020, with safety, efficiency and cost the main drivers behind it.

These ships would initially be remotely piloted, moving on to being fully autonomous in the future. Local vessels, such as tugboats and ferries are the first to be developed, with ocean-going cargo ships set for sail in 2035.  

Rolls-Royce noted these autonomous ships can save up to 20% on shipping costs, with, for example, a more efficient use of space during design, since crew accommodation does not need to be considered. According to IEEE Spectrum, piracy also stands to take a knock because these ships could be built to make it difficult to board, or if boarded, minimise access to the ship’s controls.

Much like with autonomous cars, there are certain questions that need answering for autonomous ships to become a reality. These include whether safety would be on par with the current status quo, who will be liable in case of an accident, how would insurance work, and what would be the technological requirements in order to make them function without failure across the vast oceans. To help answer these questions, Rolls-Royce is leading the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), a project that incorporates Finnish universities and some of the leading maritime businesses.

While cost saving might be on the agenda, the move has unions worried, since a cut in shipping crew makes up one of the bullet points. Rolls-Royce did not note how many jobs could be lost if these autonomous ships set sail, stating rather that it believes these ships could lead to more jobs created on land, for example in areas such as cybersecurity.

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