(Labor) Terminator: (Coming) Rise of Drone Ships

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/13/2014 10:14:00 AM
Where's the 'bridge'? Getouttahere!
The shipping industry's importance to global trade cannot be overstated. Depending on your source, 80-90% of all traded goods are exchanged via shipborne transportation. Hence the only slightly inaccurate title of Rose George's recent book on shipping being an "invisible industry," Ninety Percent of Everything. (Obviously, not all goods are traded.) In the quest to bring us ever lower-priced goods, shipping lines have done a lot to circumvent developed world regulations. The advent of flags of convenience or registering vessels not in the countries of the ships' ownership is a case in point. Flying a Panamanian or Liberian flag skirts all sorts of developed world regulations concerning environmental and labor standards. To illustrate the latter, somewhere between a quarter to a third of all seafarers come from the Philippines. They earn rather less than their Greek or Cypriot counterparts.

That said, labor still constitutes the largest expense for shipping firms. I suppose, then, that it would only be a matter of time before drone cargo ships enter service. Heck, if murderous Yanquis rain death from the skies the world over without any regret, what's the particular difficulty in manning ships remotely? Rolls-Royce--the engine maker, not the car brand which has been sold to BMW--has the latest in this line of innovation:
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.

They might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade, while regulatory hurdles and industry and union skepticism about cost and safety will slow global adoption, said Oskar Levander, the company’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology. “Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,” Levander said by phone last month. “If we want marine to do this, now is the time to move.” 
Big money is behind this project as cost considerations come into play:
The European Union is funding a 3.5 million-euro ($4.8 million) study called the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks project. The researchers are preparing the prototype for simulated sea trials to assess the costs and benefits, which will finish next year, said Hans-Christoph Burmeister at the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services CML in Hamburg... 

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. 
The article goes on to discuss the safety concerns--hacking, terrorism and so on--but I do not believe them to be insurmountable. In time, our grandchildren will probably not be pondering about what to do with drunken sailors in song but rather hacked drone cargo ships!