The EU-funded Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) project is developing systems that will enable a ship to pilot itself, with only minimal guidance from a land-based control centre in the case of emergency.
These drone boats would be controlled remotely.
Hans-Christoph Burmeister of the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services in Hamburg is one of the two coordinators of the MUNIN project, a partnership of institutions in five countries.
The research is slated for completion in 2015 and Rolls-Royce has already begun developing prototypes, raising the prospect that in the not-so-distant future global shipping might be dominated by unmanned robot vessels.
The project is an attempt to keep European shipping competitive in the face of dwindling interest in the shipping industry. “In Europe, making a career in shipping is no longer a popular choice,” Burmeister said.
Everything hinges on a sophisticated software program that calculates how a ship should change its trajectory to respond to hazards or changing conditions.
Currently being tested through a simulator, the program would analyze data collected by radar, infrared cameras and other sensors.
Burmeister admitted the system could never be 100 percent safe without some kind of land based monitoring.
“Certain situations are conceivable in which the autonomous on-board systems are overextended, such as when multiple ships are simultaneously on collision course or technical breakdowns arise,” he said.
In particularly tricky cases, a human being would intervene from shore using a satellite based remote system.
Although unmanned freighters could reduce shipping costs by 40 percent or more, the practicality of the project is being challenged by industry groups and seafarers' unions.
Both claim that computer systems could never be a substitute for the expertise of a professional crew.
Legal challenges may be even greater. Unmanned shipping is still not permitted according to international treaties, which set minimum crew requirements for large vessels.
These treaties would need to be renegotiated before robot ships could begin operating commercially.