Rolls Royce said to be developing drone cargo ships

Within a decade, unmanned freighters could be operating in regions like the Baltic Sea, and some think they could be safer, cheaper, and cleaner than manned cargo vessels. But regulatory and labor concerns remain.

A freighter passes near the Golden Gate Bridge. Rolls-Royce is said to be working on autonomous freighters, according to Bloomberg.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Who needs maritime crews to run cargo ships?

That seems to be the question Rolls-Royce is trying to ask, as it works to develop what amounts to drone freighters, ships that could one day radically disrupt the massive global shipping industry.

According to Bloomberg, Rolls-Royce's Blue Ocean development team has been working on the drone freighters in a bid to make shipping cheaper, cleaner, and safer. The organization is running a virtual-reality prototype at an office in Norway that mimics a 360-degree view from the ship's bridge. Bloomberg reported that the ships could be deployed in regions like the Baltic Sea within a decade, though regulatory and labor concerns could delay adoption elsewhere. Bloomberg said crew costs on freighters run about $3,300 per day, amounting to 44 percent of total operating expenses.

In the meantime, Bloomberg reported that the European Union has put $4.8 million into a project known as Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks. That effort is aimed at developing and verifying "a concept for an autonomous ship, which is defined as a vessel primarily guided by automated on-board decision systems but controlled by a remote operator in a shore side control station."

There are, of course, other approaches to trying to reduce shipping costs. One is to outfit the vessels with a group of metal sails that is thought to reduce fuel costs by as much as 30 percent.