Are Crewless Containerships on the Horizon?

Drones are already proven and driverless cars are being heavily tested as technology of the future.  Could the same be done with containerships?  An article in March’s Economist certainly points towards crewless ships being a possibility in the not too distant future.

The shipping industry is reportedly interested in crewless ships for both safety and cost saving reasons.  Most accidents at sea come as a result of human error so if the vessels were placed in the hands of meticulously programmed computers overseen by onshore captains then, in theory, they should be safer.  The more pressing issue is the requirement for sea freight rates to be driven down.  Lower freight rates would enable businesses in the UK to import goods as cheaply as possible whilst ensuring the shipping lines make money in an industry of low margins.

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The Captain’s a Landlubber

It’s been suggested that some functions could easily be moved onshore, such as machinery monitoring and watchkeeping/navigation duties.  The onshore control rooms could keep an eye on ships using the live data transmitted from their vessels.  It may be possible for a team of land-based captains to oversee about 10 ships each.

The current trend with shipping lines is the longer transit, slow speed, fuel saving method of sea freight.  It’s been reported that by reducing sailing speed by 30% the lines can half the amount of fuel that they use.  This saving is currently hampered by the fact that the crew are paid by the day.

Removing the crew, their accommodation, their kitchens and all other associated quarters more space would be available on the vessel to carry cargo in addition to saving on wages.  But does this stack up?

All Hands on Deck

Comparisons have been drawn with drones but these are only required to fly for hours not weeks at a time without maintenance.  Aeroplanes have never routinely needed engineers onboard to maintain their engines whilst on the move.  Amongst a containership’s crew, which is often 25 strong, include multiple engineers working tirelessly each and every day of the journey in order to keep things ticking over in the engine room.  Considering the tough climate of recent times, if shipping lines could have slashed some of this labour, potentially amounting to around £50,000 per month, would they not have done so already?

The days of shovelling coal may be over but surely before the industry invests in crewless containerships it needs to develop ‘maintenance free’ engines?

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