The cruising sailor’s worst nightmare: there’s nobody on the bridge, the officer ‘on watch’ is in a call centre ashore

EU funding into remote-controlled container
ships that will traverse the world’s oceans without any crew have been slammed
as ‘mad’ by the RYA.

The ships, almost a quarter of a mile long
and wider than a motorway could be trading from Singapore to Southampton within
a decade.

Rolls-Royce, the British engineering
company developing the ships, claims the unmanned ships will be cheaper,
greener and safer than those with a full complement of captain and crew.

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s head of
marine innovation and technology, said: ‘If you look at most accidents in
marine they are happening because of human error – a lack of concentration and
people becoming tired. We can provide a safer, more comfortable and better way
of steering a ship.’

But Stuart Carruthers, cruising manager of
the RYA, says this overlooks the fact that there are thousands of other users
out at sea who may not be seen by the robot ships.

‘I have heard of this mad idea and it is
true – they probably can operate remote-controlled ships, but that completely
ignores other legal users of the sea.

‘You could programme the algorithms of
these ships to fit the Colregs, but to put sensors on the ship that recognise
small craft under any circumstances is another matter. Radar often cannot pick
up yachts and even when it can, these leviathans will not be able to get out of
the way in time. It’s the sophistication of the decision-making process that
worries me. Doubtless it’s possible to send ships from Singapore to Southampton
on remote-control but what would be the destruction left in their wake?’

Levander said marine technology had
progressed so fast in recent years that most of the control of ships was
already automated, relieving captains of many of their traditional duties for
large parts of long voyages.

He said most of the captain’s duties today
concern managing the crew and bureaucracy.

Under Rolls-Royce’s plan captains will be
relocated from the bridges of ships to office blocks akin to air traffic
control centres in London, Singapore or Oslo, from where they will control
fleets of ships on big screens.

‘Maybe a captain can operate 10 ships… it
might be easier to have a pool of 10 captains in control of 100 ships,’ said
Levander, a Finn working at Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean research centre in

Ålesund, Norway.

These armchair captains will watch ships
crossing a computer screen until they approach port, which is when a full
bridge simulator with 360° views, will take over.

Levander brushes aside concerns that the
ships could pose a danger to other seafarers. ‘We have drone aircraft flying,
we have [drone] helicopters, we have Google cars – these are situations where
you need to react in a fraction of a second, with ships you have a lot of

The technology, which will be tested on a
real ship off the coast of Ålesund in the next few months, will be used only on
bulk cargo vessels and not passenger ships.

Approval will have to come from the
International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the global regulator of shipping.
But Levander reckons that in time, more than half of the world’s bulk cargo
ships will become remote-controlled, with container ships following later.

The EU is funding a £3 million study into
remote navigation.