Unmanned vehicles may soon venture out into the sea, marking a watershed moment in maritime history.

A video released in March by British car and aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce, unveiled its vision of how land-based control centres backed by precision design can remotely control unmanned cargo ships at sea.

The six-minute video showcases a futuristic vision in which a small crew of 7-14 people on shore monitor and control cargo ships using technology such as interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms and surveillance drones. “The concepts are set 10-15 years into the future," Oskar Levander, vice-president (innovation, engineering and technology, marine) at Rolls-Royce, said in a phone interview from Finland, adding that as cybersecurity is critical to the safe and successful operation of these vessels, the project involves identifying and incorporating that aspect in the design.

This video is a visual representation of an extensive study into the unmanned ship concept introduced in 2013 by Rolls-Royce with project partners VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland) and TAUCHI (Tampere University of Computer Human Interaction).

The firm is in the final stage of research, running various system tests. “We envisage a remotely operated commercial vessel in local waters in operation by 2020. By 2025 we hope to have a remotely operated vessel in open sea," says Levander. However, he adds that the technology “does not apply to cruise ships or those used in the oil and gas industry".

Incidentally, the US Navy, too, is in the process of testing an unmanned warship called ‘The Sea Hunter’, according to a 10 April report in the NavyTimes.

The advantages of remote-controlled and autonomous cargo ships include a larger capacity, better hydrodynamics and less wind resistance. Cutting out crew accommodation and support systems will make the ship lighter, reduce energy and fuel consumption and operating costs. Another advantage is safety. “According to a report published by insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75% and 96% of marine accidents are a result of ‘human error", points out Levander, adding that since there is no crew on board, the risk to life is anyway eliminated.

But Anil Devli of the Indian National Shipowners’ Association, Mumbai, is not fully convinced. “...it would be myopic for me to say that this could never happen—technology can take you to a lot of places. But while engines can be operated remotely, I’m not sure if navigation can be, as it depends on a number of permutations and combinations including wind forces, currents, the errors of the other, cargo collapses or leakages, to name a few."

Multiple points of view emerge on the cost benefits of unmanned ships. Devli, for instance, thinks that installing this technological design itself will be a costly affair. It may also turn out to be disadvantageous for a country such as India, which contributes a lot of manpower to the industry. Levander, on the other hand, feels that many of these jobs will transfer to the shore, leading to better working conditions.

The most significant challenge for the new design in this case is regulation. “Maritime law does not anticipate the development of remote or autonomous ships," says Levander, adding that if this fructifies, the International Maritime Organization may have to change its rules. Currently, unmanned ships are illegal under international conventions, according to a 14 February 2014 ‘Bloomberg’ report. “In case it actually does happen, the SOLAS (safety of life at sea) convention will undergo massive changes in terms of manning scales, safety of cargo, marine life, containment of hazards and all the small but important rules of the road at sea," believes Devli.