In addition to saving lives, autonomous ships will cut costs. Levander estimates that a fully autonomous ship might cost 20 percent less to operate than a conventional crewed ship. Without the need for crew quarters, a conventional bridge, lifeboats, and other familiar features, ships can be lighter and more compact and thus less expensive to operate — although they may be more expensive to build.
It costs nearly $100,000 to retrofit an existing vessel with Sea Machines gear. And the all-electric Yara Birkeland — a 100-container vessel being built in Norway that is slated to launch with a crew in 2018 and operate autonomously by 2020 — has a price tag estimated at $25 million. That's about three times as much as standard container ships of similar size.
How they’ll work
Rolls-Royce is focused on developing autonomous systems that can work at sea for weeks at a time without human intervention, Levander says, adding that the required sensor, navigation, and communication technologies already exist.
Autonomous ships will "see" the world and potential obstacles through a combination of visible-light and infrared cameras, radar, and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), which works like sonar but uses light pulses instead of sound. The information is fed to the ship's onboard computers, which factor in satellite navigation (GPS) and weather reports as well as other ships’ location and identity broadcasts.