Forget Autonomous Cars—Autonomous Ships Are Almost Here

If Rolls-Royce has its way, commercial vessels will soon have no crew on board

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It’s midnight on the North Atlantic, where a massive container ship receives the latest weather report. There’s a nasty storm brewing ahead. Quietly, the ship changes course and speed, to skirt the worst of it and ensure an on-time arrival at its destination. The ship’s owners and the harbormaster at its next port of call are advised of the revised route. And as it nears shore, the giant ship must correct course once again, this time to steer clear of a fishing vessel off its starboard bow.

Just another day for trans-Atlantic shipping, it might seem. In fact, it’s not. You see, this ship has no one aboard. It’s commanded from an operating center on the other side of the world, where technicians are monitoring and controlling this vessel and others like it through a satellite data link—that is, when the ship isn’t just controlling itself.

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