UK-based vehicle manufacturer Rolls-Royce is planning to unveil its first fleet of crewless ships by 2020, with the aim of reducing sea transport expenses by around 20%.
The company is currently working in partnership with various entities and projects, including Norway's Maritime Administration’s Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships.
It is also involved with DIMECC, which is partly financed by Finnish government’s innovation investment arm, Tekes, as well as several autonomous ship research projects in the UK and Singapore.
Rolls-Royce innovation vice-president Oskar Levander was quoted by Belfast Telegraph as saying: “The development will start in a few countries, and these flag states will give the vessel permission to operate before we have international regulations in place.”
The autonomous ship technology is expected to make shipping safer, and upon completion is expected to be adopted by major shipping firms in a bid to improve their efficiency and profitability.
Maritime unions have nonetheless expressed concerns over the possible impact of autonomous ship technology on the livelihoods of sea-faring workers.
A Nautilus maritime union spokesperson said: “The pace of change is a challenge to safety, and there are also many unanswered questions about the legal implications of the way in which operational and management responsibilities are being taken away from ships' staff.
“We are concerned that technology is seen simply as a way to cut jobs and cut costs.”
A 2015 Bank of England study reported by Sky News found the UK could lose up to 15 million jobs in the fields of automation, administrative, clerical and production, if and when autonomous shipping renders traditional shipping methods obsolete.