The Blue Ocean development team of Rolls Royce Marine Power Operations is designing unmanned cargo ships, to deliver safe, affordable and lower-pollution vessels to the shipping industry.

Rolls Royce has already displayed a virtual reality prototype, which is equipped with a camera in place of a bridge and is capable of simulating 360 degree views from a vessel’s bridge, reported Bloomberg.

The prototype is being showcased at the company’s facility in Alesund, Norway.

According to Rolls Royce, control centres can be developed that will allow captains or a team of operators to command and operate unmanned ships from dry land.

"The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined."

The unmanned ships would weigh 5% less and use 12% to 15% less fuel than traditional cargo ships.

Rolls Royce innovation in marine engineering and technology vice-president Oskar Lavender was quoted by the news website as saying that the ships could be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade, as regulatory processes and industry and union skepticism will slow the global adoption.

The project is already facing opposition and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) seafarers section London chairman Dave Heindel said: "It cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears and thought processes of professional seafarers."

"The human element is one of the first lines of defence in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialise. The dangers posed to the environment by unmanned vessels are too easily imagined."

In contrast to opposition, the European Union is investing €3.5m to develop a concept for autonomous ships, in a project named maritime unmanned navigation through intelligence in networks.

Hamburg-based Fraunhofer Centre for Maritime Logistics and Services project coordinator Hans-Christoph Burmeister said that researchers are preparing the prototype for simulated sea trials to assess the costs and benefits, which will finish next year.