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Crewless ships will be sailing the seven seas by 2020

Crewless ships will be sailing the seven seas by 2020

Rolls-Royce's quest to bring crewless ships to sea is charging ahead after the engineering giant said it has been working with Government-backed groups on the project.

The company plans to release its first fleet of autonomous ships by 2020, in a move that could cut sea transport costs by as much as 20%.

Rolls-Royce is now working with bodies in Northern Europe, including the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships - established by Norway's Maritime Administration - and DIMECC, funded in part by the Finnish government innovation investment arm Tekes.

It is also embarking on major research projects in Britain and Singapore.

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce's vice president of innovation, told the Press Association that teams are working to develop regulation that will cover the first iteration of commercial ships like ferries and tugboats, before embarking on cargo vessels that will sail across international waters.

"The development will start in a few countries, and these flag states will give the vessel permission to operate before we have international regulations in place."

The technology is expected to adopted by major shipping firms that are looking to boost efficiency and profitability amid weak global demand.

The industry slowdown has impacted giants like AP Moller-Maersk which unveiled a full-year loss of 1.9 billion US dollar (£1.5 billion) earlier this month.

But autonomous ships are expected to make waves across the industry - not only for the crews that run those ships, but the insurers and security firms that back them.

Jonathan Moss, a partner at law firm DWF and international shipping expert, said: "The maritime industry as a whole may suffer in terms of employment levels."

The "massive boom" in the maritime security over the past six to seven years will be dampened, as there will be no crew to protect from piracy, and ship cargo will be stored more securely.

"Similarly, these security guards have created a lot of opportunity for Lloyd's of London and bespoke insurance products that insure them," Mr Moss said. "We will see a downturn in the popularity of those policies."

Unions have already raised concerns about the adoption of crewless ships, particularly as technology outpaces industry training.

"The pace of change is a challenge to safety and there are also many unanswered questions about the legal implications of the way in which operational and management responsibilities are being taken away from ships' staff," a spokesperson for the Nautilus maritime union said.

"We are concerned that technology is seen simply as a way to cut jobs and cut costs."

Mr Levander of Rolls-Royce admitted that skill sets will need to change, with more demand for work in areas like cyber security.

However, he said crewless ships are likely to boost on-shore jobs that are generally safer and present a more sustainable lifestyle for staff.

"It's definitely a way of making shipping safer, and that's something that the whole society will appreciate," Mr Levander

"But for individual ship owners, in many cases, it's the money that is the driver for a lot of the development."