Unmanned ocean vessels may help optimize use of cargo ships, cut fuel use, and reduce labor costs

Commercial surface ship designers, operators, and regulators are gearing up for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with minimal or even no crew.

Commercial surface ship designers, operators, and regulators are gearing up for a future in which cargo vessels sail the oceans with minimal or even no crew. Ship operators say they believe more automation and unmanned surface vessels (USVs) will enable them to optimize ship use, including reducing fuel consumption. "The benefit of automation is as an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate," says Palle Laursen, head of Maersk Line Ship Management, a unit of cargo-ship giant A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S. A future unmanned ship could resemble some of the most advanced combat drones, using infrared detectors, high-resolution cameras, and laser sensors to monitor its surroundings. The vast troves of data would be transmitted to command centers where staff do little more than monitor progress and ensure ships are operating at optimum speeds. We've been hearing a lot about unmanned aircraft and land vehicles like trucks and cars, but the world's vast oceans may open up big opportunities for networked sensors and big-data applications with the potential to automate the world's merchant ship fleet.

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