Some three years from now it will be possible to sail on unmanned or autonomous vessels from Rolls-Royce.

The new 2020 launch date is earlier than the date previously announced by Rolls-Royce, including in statements to ShippingWatch, namely that the company expected to be ready to embark on unmanned sailing by 2025.

According to several British media, the autonomous Rolls-Royce ships will be able to cut the costs of seaborne transport by up to 20 percent, and the first vessel types to sail without crews on board will likely be smaller tugs and ferries.

"The development will start in a few countries, and these flag states will give the vessel permission to operate before we have international regulations in place," says Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation at Rolls-Royce.

As ShippingWatch has previously reported, Rolls-Royce is part of a collaboration aimed at developing autonomous vessels, a venture that includes Wärtsilä, ABB, Ericsson, Cargotec, and Meyer Turku. The project is supported by Finnish innovation fund Tekes.

Raises questions concerning legislation

The use of unmanned vessels raises many questions similar to the questions related to the debate concerning driverless cars. For instance, it needs to be clarified who is liable in the case of accidents, just as it has raised significant concerns among certain unions representing seafarers that the introduction of unmanned vessels could result in far less available jobs.

Furthermore, the prospect of autonomous vessels will require international regulations concerning the use of such vessels.

"Without a crew on board, all of the procedures currently carried out by people will be complimented by technology that can handle things on its own, such as extinguishing fires, providing ventilation in the cargo hold, handling systems in the engine room, and so on," said Sauli Eloranta, senior vice president of Rolls-Royce Marine's division for technology and innovation, in an interview with ShippingWatch in October.

Rolls-Royce's vessels will likely not be the first unmanned vessels hitting the water, as the companies Kongsberg Maritime and Automated Ships plan to launch an unmanned vessel already in 2018.

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