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Focus: Global Supply Chain and Logistics

Our Weekly Feature Article on Topics Related to Global Supply Chain & Logistics

From SCDigest's On-Target e-Magazine

- Feb. 26, 2014 -


Global Supply Chain News: Will We Soon See Drone Cargo and Container Ships?

Rolls Royce, Euro Group Working on the Idea; Will the ROI be There?


SCDigest Editorial Staff is piloting drone aircraft for package deliveries. A number of firms, especially in Europe, are working hard on the concept of driverless trucks.

So it shouldn't really be any surprise that work is now also being on unmanned cargo and container ships as well.

SCDigest Says:


There are already doubts and resistance to the drone ship concept. Some, for example, believe the ROI from such an effort just isn't there.

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News came out this week that Rolls Royce has been working on such a concept since late 2013. The research work is being performed under a project it calls Blue Ocean, and it has already created virtual-reality prototype at its research center in Alesund, Norway, that simulates 360-degree views from a vessel's bridge.

Rolls Royce's efforts are connecting to something called the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN). The program is co-funded by the European Commissions and aims to develop and verify a concept for an autonomous ship, which is defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station.

MUNIN is a consortium of eight partners that have the relevant scientific and industrial background. The group is studying the operational, technical and legal aspects in connection with the vision of an autonomous ship.

Its web site says that "Solutions for an autonomous bridge, an autonomous engine room, a shore side operation center and the communication architecture linking vessel and a shore operator will be developed and verified" as a result of the program.

It hopes to develop a prototype ship that can be sailed by the end of 2015.

Of course, reducing operating costs is one big driver of the research. Ship crews can cost more than $3000 per day, and represent some 45% of total variable operating costs, industry experts say. Drone ships would dramatically reduce those labor costs.

Rolls Royce says that in addition to the labor savings, drone ships would be safer and more environmentally friendly.

Company drawings for the new ships show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the need for a "bridge" structure where the crew normally lives. Eliminating the bridge and all the other systems that support the crew (electrical systems, air conditioning, water and sewage, etc.) leaves more room for cargo or containers. Rolls Royce estimates that the ships would be 5% lighter before loading cargo and would use 12-15% less fuel.

Bloomberg notes the company's Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology, believes the unmanned ships might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade, but that regulatory hurdles combined with industry and union pushback relative to safety and other issues will slow global adoption.

(Global Supply Chain Article Continued Below)




He also believes that the transition will happen gradually as the technology evolves. First might simply be a reduction in crew size, rather than complete elimination. Container ships and dry-bulk carriers would probably be the first to sale unmanned, he says, while it will take a lot longer for the change to come to tankers hauling hazardous materials such as oil and liquefied natural gas.

Resistance to the Idea Already Building

Of course, there are already doubts and resistance to the drone ship concept. Some, for example, believe the ROI from such an effort just isn't there.

"I don't think personally that there's a huge cost-benefit in unmanned ships today, but technologically it's possible," said Tor Svensen, CEO of maritime for DNV GL, vessel safety certification company. "My prediction is that it's not coming in the foreseeable future."

Rolls Royce Drawings Showing Full and Empty Drone Ships - without a Bridge



Unmanned ships wouldn't even be legal currently, since there are standards in place for the minimum amount of crew different types of ships must carry. Organizations such as the International Maritime Organization, a group that is part of the UN, and others are involved in maintaining and potentially changing those standards. If a ship did not comply with existing crew standards, it would not be able to obtain insurance, and thus would not be able to sale.

However, once proven operationally feasible, the IMO and others would have to revisit the issue, SCDigest believes.

Naturally, labor groups are also opposed.

Technology "cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers," Dave Heindel of the International Transport Workers' Federation, told Bloomberg. "The human element is one of the first lines of defense in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world's seas specialize. The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined."

That will likely be the same type of argument made by Teamsters in the face of driverless trucks - but in the end both will likely be futile when the technology is perfected.

Are you experiencing any issue due to chassis shortages at LA/Long Beach?  What needs to happen?Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button (email) or section (web form) below.


Recent Feedback

The concept is good, but we have to modernize the ports also.

Feb, 28 2014