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Rolls Royce Developing Drone Cargo Ships 216

Posted by samzenpus
from the so-easy-the-drive-themselves dept.
kc123 writes in with news that Rolls Royce is designing unmanned cargo ships."Rolls-Royce's Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual-reality prototype at its office in Alesund, Norway, that simulates 360-degree views from a vessel's bridge. Eventually, the London-based manufacturer of engines and turbines says, captains on dry land will use similar control centers to command hundreds of crewless ships. Drone ships would be safer, cheaper and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade, Rolls-Royce says."
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Rolls Royce Developing Drone Cargo Ships

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  • by beltsbear (2489652) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @01:26AM (#46354557)

    And drives it into a pier with many people.

    • by Cryacin (657549) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @01:57AM (#46354679)
      Hmmm, let's see. Several tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of floating kit, carrying possibly just as much value in cargo, int he middle of nowhere, with no-one in sight, just a video camera. Hmmm.

      Will the pirates at least wave and say thank you to the crew when they take manual control of the ship? How about just looting a few cargo containers as it's travelling along?
      • by tlhIngan (30335) <.slashdot. .at. .worf.net.> on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:30AM (#46354831)

        Hmmm, let's see. Several tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of floating kit, carrying possibly just as much value in cargo, int he middle of nowhere, with no-one in sight, just a video camera. Hmmm.

        Will the pirates at least wave and say thank you to the crew when they take manual control of the ship? How about just looting a few cargo containers as it's travelling along?

        And yet, the outcome is still better than it is now, where they hijack the ship and hold the crew ransom. Here, they hijack the ship, and.. that's it. There's no crew to hold for ransom, no one to talk to for instant quick payment, etc. You save human lives.

        The only way to make money is for the pirates to go and sell the contents of the containers, which requires a lot more time, effort and money and takes a lot of time. Holding a crew hostage could easily get $10M+ in a week. Making money selling what's in the containers takes far longer.

        • by rts008 (812749)

          And no control over the contents that specific ship may have, or whether they can find a market for the booty...I don't buy it either.

          I was under the impression that the whole point of the piracy was the payoff on the hostages, and really had nothing to do with the ship's cargo. (generalization, not 100% accurate)

          • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 27, 2014 @05:37AM (#46355435)

            And no control over the contents that specific ship may have, or whether they can find a market for the booty...I don't buy it either.

            I was under the impression that the whole point of the piracy was the payoff on the hostages, and really had nothing to do with the ship's cargo. (generalization, not 100% accurate)

            And no control over the ship either. The remote crew could just sail it to the nearest friendly warship.

            • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @08:51AM (#46356013)

              And no control over the contents that specific ship may have, or whether they can find a market for the booty...I don't buy it either.

              I was under the impression that the whole point of the piracy was the payoff on the hostages, and really had nothing to do with the ship's cargo. (generalization, not 100% accurate)

              And no control over the ship either. The remote crew could just sail it to the nearest friendly warship.

              Also no need for the ship to look like a regular ship to start with. No need for fixed railings or entrance ways at sea-level - good luck grappling to that.

        • "The only way to make money is for the pirates to go and sell the contents of the containers"

          Yeah... just like the only way for somebody stealing a famous work of art to make money is selling it.

          Did you think about insurance companies willing to pay 10 millions for a cargo valued 150?

          • by gl4ss (559668)

            why bother when you can pay 5 million to goons who go and whack the pirates back into the sea(since they have no hostages...).

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward

              "$10M or your $LARGESUM ship and cargo land at the bottom of the ocean".

              • by Joce640k (829181)

                "$10M or your $LARGESUM ship and cargo land at the bottom of the ocean".

                Riiight. Because there's no possible way they could do that at the moment is there...?

                http://www.dilbert.com/fast/20... [dilbert.com]

              • by drinkypoo (153816)

                "$10M or your $LARGESUM ship and cargo land at the bottom of the ocean".

                They have the option to do that with a manned ship as well. Not seeing the value of your comment. Because instead of $200M it'll be a $250M ship?

        • by DrXym (126579)
          It would be less Captain Phillips and more ED-209.
        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          The only way to make money is for the pirates to go and sell the contents of the containers, which requires a lot more time, effort and money and takes a lot of time. Holding a crew hostage could easily get $10M+ in a week. Making money selling what's in the containers takes far longer.

          Further, if the pirates regularly get into the retail business, they'll be motivated to prevent other pirates from interfering with their business, and eventually they'll become responsible businessmen. Meanwhile the shipper gets to write off their losses.

      • by DrXym (126579) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @06:50AM (#46355623)
        With no "good guys" to care about, there are all kinds of novel things the ship could do. It could be remotely or automatically steered to the nearest warship or safe harbour. Parts of the ship could made impassable with bars or shutters. Other parts could flooded with tear gas, frictionless liquids, strong adhesives, permanent marker dye etc. On the outside nets or grapples could be thrown out to foul the pirates boats or propellers. Stun grenades could be fired etc. Cargo could be protected with electrified fences, barbed wire etc.

        The ultimate failsafe if remote control was impossible and communication was disabled would be to trip a few circuits deep in the ship, jam the rudder and drop anchors. Good luck towing that. Basically it could be made really unpleasant and futile to hijack these ships. But it could make for some amusing news headlines.

      • by Joce640k (829181)

        Will the pirates at least wave and say thank you to the crew when they take manual control of the ship?

        What if there's no "manual control" when the ship is out at sea? Are they going to start unloading containers onto their little speedboat from a moving ship?

        I'm going to start including this on all ./ replies: http://www.dilbert.com/fast/20... [dilbert.com]

      • by khallow (566160)
        Alternately, just hijack the remote control of the ship, sail it to a friendly port and scrap the ship and cargo for cents on the dollar. A system like this becomes a huge, high value target for anyone who can bribe an employee in the control system. Someone might be able to obtain tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in a short while by stealing dozens or hundreds of such ships at once.

        Putting in a centralized system creates a vulnerability to a single attack or bug.
      • by Ash Vince (602485) *

        Hmmm, let's see. Several tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of floating kit, carrying possibly just as much value in cargo, int he middle of nowhere, with no-one in sight, just a video camera. Hmmm.
        Will the pirates at least wave and say thank you to the crew when they take manual control of the ship? How about just looting a few cargo containers as it's travelling along?

        Not quite. Currently piracy only occurs in a few areas of the world, all of which are quite heavily patrolled by various international naval task forces.

        In those areas you might be able to board one of these ships and take control of it, but you can be pretty sure that there will be an armed boarding party from one of those naval warships en route pretty quickly. Currently you can threaten to kill the crew if they do not back off but with that threat gone you are going to have a hard time getting that ship

      • by KDN (3283)
        Waving assumes that you need to get on board to take control. How about hacking the communications link? Then you have the world's largest RC vehicle.
    • Wouldn't happen. Most large cargo ships dock under tug control. The automated ships would probably operate in the same way. The only time they would really be automated would be at sea. Losing contact while at sea would be the greatest danger and that would be mostly to the ship and cargo.
    • by KDN (3283)
      Support pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge, have several of them collide at the entrance to the Long Beach shipping terminal, blocking access for a few weeks, run over the deep water loading ports for crude oil. Run over a deep water drilling rig. I can think of any number of terrorist activities one could do. And remember, time and time again, no one really thinks of security until that "oh s___, we've been hacked" moment.
      • Support pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge, have several of them collide at the entrance to the Long Beach shipping terminal, blocking access for a few weeks, run over the deep water loading ports for crude oil. Run over a deep water drilling rig. I can think of any number of terrorist activities one could do. And remember, time and time again, no one really thinks of security until that "oh s___, we've been hacked" moment.

        Except they could already do that with a manned vessel if it was at all feasible.

  • Worst. Idea. Ever. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by n1ywb (555767) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @01:35AM (#46354589) Homepage Journal
    I don't even know where to begin. The ocean is a harsh environment and ships work hard and maintenance and upkeep is a constant chore day in and day out both in port and while underway. The engineering crew is basically the travelling maintenance department. If the ship doesn't carry a crew, it will have to come out of service for maintenance and repairs, which means not only is it not making money, it's tying up an expensive berth in port. If it does break down while underway, how is anybody going to get to it? It could take days.
    • Hence, the idea is to equip those ships with infallible (*) engines.

      (*) If the engine does fail, another drone ship will come and replace the whole engine automatically.

    • by SimonInOz (579741)

      Er yeah, well maybe. I used to do a fair bit of cruising. I admit the idea of an unmanned cargo ship barrelling down on my unsuspecting sailing boat is a bit scary. But on the other hand, do they ever keep watch in the open ocean anyway? ... I confess I doubt it. Might be an improvement.

    • Presumably a ship like this would have a much smaller (but non-zero) amount of structure dedicated to crew facilities, which would make it lighter, but that extra space would probably get filled with containers, basically nullifying that savings.

      I don't know what percentage of the fuel burn is dedicated to ship electrical generation, but this seems trivial relative to the amount of fuel used to move it through the water.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      You didn't RTFA, did you? They are saying that the technology to have crewless ships exists but isn't economically viable yet, and besides which regulations require minimum crew levels. Much like driverless cars.

      It's at the concept state and they are clearly aware of the issues.

      • Also FTA: the International Transport Workers' Federation(seafarer's union) is decidedly against the proposition.

        The Brotherhood of Pirates' Worldwide doesn't officially have a problem with the idea.

  • In the middle of the ocean, any kind of 'cops' would be days away.
    • Modern pirates make most of their money by kidnapping and ransoming crews. If there is no crew, there is far less incentive to board the ship.

      • Incentive, like, for instance, a boatload of luxury cars waiting to be stolen?
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by davester666 (731373)

          in containers that aren't labelled, stacked 5 high and 10 wide [or more], where you would have to move most containers to be able to actually open them to see inside, nevermind the whole "in the middle of the ocean without a road in sight" thing.

          and while it could be fairly easy to disable remote control of the ship [by physically destroying/disconnecting the antenae/satellite dish], and they can kill the engine, it may not be that easy to get control of the ship to get it to shore in a reasonable [for the

          • You mean, "give us money or we'll sink it, and drown in the process - or the very least, get caught."

    • In the middle of the ocean, any kind of 'cops' would be days away.

      On the other hand, you aren't going to get much of a ransom for a satellite modem and a half-rack of control gear, no matter how menacing and willing to kill the hostages you look... Also, even crewed vessels of any significant size are usually wearing a beacon of some type, and if the cops are days away, so to is the nearest possible buyer for the cargo.

      (Probably more relevant, with the exception of, quite atypical, security contractors brought on out of necessity for very, very, bad neighborhoods, it i

    • I'm sure pirates will like them. In the middle of the ocean, any kind of 'cops' would be days away.

      But will they like the pair of Hailfire Droids that went along for the ride?

    • That's why these ships would be equipped with a self-destruct mechanism.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      In the middle of the ocean, any kind of 'cops' would be days away.

      Please explain how that differs from the current situation, when many ships' crews are not permitted to carry armament in any case. You're complaining that the cops are days away but they're days away from a manned ship as well, and if you take one of those over you get hostages.

  • by steveha (103154) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @01:41AM (#46354611) Homepage

    The article is mainly about using telepresence and computers to pilot a ship. But other than piloting, what else do humans do, and how automatable is it?

    For example, how often do people have to repair ships while under way? During a storm, do people ever have to run around fixing chains that are working loose, or fix a leaking seal and set up pumps to pump out a flooded compartment?

    I don't know the answers to the above questions, by the way. I don't know much about cargo ships.

    Even if we still need humans for some tasks on a cargo ship, perhaps not too far in the future, we might have telepresence robots that can do the tasks.

    • by n1ywb (555767) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:00AM (#46354699) Homepage Journal
      Pretty much constantly. Entropy is a bitch and the sea generates a lof of it.
    • by floobedy (3470583) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:58AM (#46354941)

      But other than piloting, what else do humans do, and how automatable is it?

      Generally the employees on a ship are divided into officers and crew. The officers include the captain, first mate, and second mate. Also the officers include the engineering department, with a chief engineer, second engineer, and third engineer. Among the crew, there are a bunch of seamen (perhaps 5 or more of them). There is also a steward and a cook.

      All of these people are divided into shifts. At any given time, there are 5 or so people working: one deck officer (such as the captain), one engineer (who is maintaining the large engine), and a couple of able seaman, one of whom is on lookout at the front of the ship.

      I doubt they could do away with the engineering positions. These ships have large engines which require continuous maintenance. It won't be done by robots any time soon.

      Perhaps they could automate the captain/lookout positions. Doing so would reduce the people on a shift from 5 or so, to 3. Perhaps there could be one captain for a convoy of ships, and a single lookout for the forward-most ship in the convoy. Also they could reduce the steward/cook to one person (instead of two) per ship in that case.

      • by viperidaenz (2515578) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @04:39AM (#46355223)

        This idea is being proposed by an engine manufacture. I'm sure they thought about engine maintenance.

        • by xelah (176252)
          I'd hazard a guess that Rolls Royce might make engines which require less maintenance than usual, or maintenance which can be carried out quickly at each port, and so have come up with this idea because it would help turn that in to a competitive advantage. I also notice they mention the Baltic as a first place to try something, which I assume implies quite short voyages.
    • For example, how often do people have to repair ships while under way?

      Find someone who served in the Navy and ask them how much time is spent scraping and painting, wiping and oiling. Funny how that never makes it into TV commercials, well except for the Saturday Night Live spoof of a Navy commercial in the 70s.

  • It's like they're inviting pirates to come aboard and have a little look around. And it would be pretty cool to camp out on a Chinese drone cargo ship as you cross the Pacific. Will this herald the rise of intercontinental hobos?
    • Will this herald the rise of intercontinental hobos?

      Now that might be a really entertaining way to spend my retirement. Thanks for the suggestion. :)

      • by Gothmolly (148874)

        It already exists, it's called American college kids, hipstering their way down the years from Berlin->Prague->Barcelona->Costa Rica->Beijing. You just have to know where the current cool place is.

    • Sorry, I'm commenting to remove a bad mod (I'm sure I didn't click Redundant).

      I love the idea of intercontinental hobos though. Containership Willy, riding the currents. Would their bindles be low power outboards?

  • by the_Bionic_lemming (446569) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:02AM (#46354717)

    If someone boards an unmanned drone ship, wouldn't they be able to claim the ship as salvage and sell the contents?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Absolutely!

      Also, international law requires that every ship continuously maintains a "proper" watch by all possible means while at underway. Further, all ships are required to render assistance to any ship or crew in distress. An unmanned ship would by its very nature be unable to maintain a watch 24/7 or pull an injured crew from a liferaft.

    • If someone boards an unmanned drone ship, wouldn't they be able to claim the ship as salvage and sell the contents?

      Presumably they would have to get past whatever automated or semi-automated defenses the ship would have.

  • Very little benefit (Score:5, Interesting)

    by floobedy (3470583) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:15AM (#46354779)

    Drone ships would have very little benefit compared to ships of today, and would save very little labor. That's because crew sizes are already negligible on modern ships. Ships require very little labor for their operation. For example, a massive containership like the Maersk Triple-E might carry 15,000 containers (equivalent to about 7,000 tractor-trailer truckloads) while having a crew of 15, in three shifts. At any one time, there are 5 people transporting 7,000 tractor-trailer truckloads of cargo. If we reduced those jobs, it would make very little difference to costs or anything else.

    Bear in mind that three of the 15 positions are the engineering staff who are frequently performing physical operations on a massive engine. Those jobs will not go away by having a single captain for multiple ships.

    The number of jobs on a ship is decreasing every year anyway, as ships gradually grow larger. Larger ships generally do not have larger crews, so the amount of labor per unit of cargo keeps dropping anyway. Large containerships today carry more than twice the cargo of ships from 20 years ago, while crew sizes have not grown, so the amount of labor per unit of cargo has dropped by half and continues dropping.

    Labor costs are already an extremely small fraction of the costs of operating a ship. It would make little difference to reduce labor costs further.

    • by floobedy (3470583) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @02:33AM (#46354837)

      I should also point out that the statistics mentioned in the article are incorrect. From the article:

      Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship, according to Moore Stephens LLP, an industry accountant and consultant.

      A modern containership can cost $200 million, and can consume 300 tons of bunker fuel per day. Thus, the fuel costs are over $100,000 per day, and the costs of the purchase of the ship are over $50,000 per day.

      Thus, crew costs are more like 2% of all costs, and not 44% as the quotation indicates.

      The only way to arrive at the 44% figure is if you break down containership costs into capital costs (the cost of the ship), bunker costs (fuel), and operating costs (not including fuel). This kind of breakdown is commonly done. If you break things down in this way, "operating costs" are generally about 10% of the total cost of running the ship, and labor costs would be 44% of that ~10%. Thus, labor costs altogether are a few percent of the cost of running a ship.

      The article does not spell this out, and gives a mistaken impression.

  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @03:56AM (#46355083) Homepage

    I don't see a big win here. It doesn't save that much labor. If it allowed using more small ships instead of giant ones, it might be worth something, but the economies of scale for post-Panamax container ships aren't really related to crew size.

    Still, automated operations at ports have come a long way. Several big ports use big automated guided vehicles for container movement, and many container cranes are now fully automated. See this video [youtube.com] for a modern port operation.

    • According to TFA it allows 5% more cargo capacity and 12 - 15% less fuel because there is no bridge or living quarters, no food stores, no toilets, no air conditioning.

  • by Richard Kirk (535523) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @07:17AM (#46355717)
    So far we have had 100% negative comments in the direct replies, unless one slips past me while writing this. Many of these raise issues that were raised in the original article. Many others just say it won't be safe if computers are in charge. I am not convinced by any of these.

    The Rolls-Royce calculations show that there is a measurable saving in pollution by leaving off most of the crew support features. Fine - a potential saving exists. Now let's explore whether the saving is practical

    Large ships do not turn suddenly - it can take miles and tens of minutes to turn a large tanker. You do not have to provide the captain with a real-time 360-degree virtual environment. You have to provide some sort of autonomous fail-safe in case communications are lost. You can have a one-time pad encryption for sending instructions, so remote hacking without a copy of the pad should be difficult if not impossible.

    What if the ship gets into difficulties? We know the problems that conventional ships get into. It should be possible to calculate what fraction of these could be fixed by the crew at see, and factored into the potential saving. This is what the analysis should do. If you are in a storm, and a conventional container ship starts spilling its load, there is probably not much the crew can do other than hang on and wait for the storm to pass. It seems entirely reasonable to me that a small number of faults at sea could be fixed by flying out personnel to the ship and landing on the flat top of the containers, if nowhere else. So, you factor in the costs of a call-out.

    Might work. Won't ever work if no-one's prepared to think about it, though.

    • So here's something this makes me wonder about: without the necessity of crew life support, why not turn them into shallow cruising submarines?

      Not deep water at all - no more then 10 meters or so below the surface, but deep enough that they can cruise under the waves and weather, towing some breathing gear to feed the engines from the top.

      You'd have no risk of crew life support failure or drowning, since they're not on board. It'd be impossible for pirates to get to. It would be completely safe around other

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        So here's something this makes me wonder about: without the necessity of crew life support, why not turn them into shallow cruising submarines?

        It's nontrivial to create a sub into which you can conveniently load containers.

  • Even more jobs taken from people and given to robots! Maybe soon robots will be in charge of giving jobs to robots. What could go wrong?

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Even more jobs taken from people and given to robots! Maybe soon robots will be in charge of giving jobs to robots. What could go wrong?

      We could fail to decouple living expenses from work, for one. That would be stupid and fucking ridiculous, but it could happen. We could just put our hands over our ears and shout LALALA and ignore progress and pretend that people who do more work that we personally approve of are more deserving of life, forever. Then we would wind up with a cultural wasteland full of abused, depressed people.

      Hmm, kind of like now

  • by jon3k (691256) on Thursday February 27, 2014 @09:53AM (#46356439)
    The plot of the movie "Hackers" is actually going to be real??? Finally!!!
  • The first use of this might be for cargo ship convoys, instead of letting drones loose by themselves. I'm thinking that one or more new drone ships would tag along with a regular manned cargo ship, effectively increasing the capacity of the crew of the manned ship. The crew would be nearby for maintenance and emergencies. Remember that as with any new technology it would be phased in- the thousands of current cargo ships are not going to disappear overnight. If this technology is ever implemented, there

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