Marintek, part of the SINTEF group based in Norway, is one of a number of partners working on developing systems which can operate without the need for humans. The "Seatonomy" project is looking to have ships sailing without human crews in the next 10 to 20 years.
The 12 million kroner ($1.9 million) research investment by SINTEF could actually improve ship safety as human error causes more than 75 percent of today’s vessel accidents.
Researcher Ørnulf Rødseth said on ScienceNordic.com: “There aren’t many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today.”
The team are looking at integrating satellite communications and anti-collision technology to create ships that sail themselves. The major focus is on creating a system that is safe enough to satisfy the industry.
"There is a lot of talk about the costs issue, as well as the concerns of shipowners and the general public. We mustn’t forget that current rules and legislation all assume that there are people on board”, Rødseth said.
He added: “Safety is key across all these fields, and the systems developed must be cost-effective. We’re talking about vessels moving slowly across the open ocean meeting very little in the way of traffic. Radar will keep an eye on everything going on."
Skipperless ships may also help the shipping industry become more sustainable as the supply of willing on-board workers decreases, but the volume of goods being transported rises.
Unmanned vessels can also save on fuel consumption and reduce harmul emissions as their speeds can be reduced. Fuel is the single highest operational cost in the merchant shipping industry.
It is hoped any autonomous technology for sea-vessels could benefit the merchant, aquaculture, the offshore wind and subsea exploration industries.
There are more than a hundred thousand merchant ships in operation around the world.