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Autonomous shipping

Driverless cars may carry the media, but other driverless models may be just as transformational.

There’s a Norwegian company testing a fully autonomous cargo ship. Sounds scary right? Here’s something scarier – a fully manned cargo ship collided with a fully manned naval destroyer just a few weeks ago, killing 9 sailors. How, exactly, does that happen? Maybe an autonomous cargo ship isn’t such a bad idea.

Marine staffing is expensive, and the lure of a ‘life at sea’ has definitely lost it’s mystique. Anyone who’s been there knows there’s little glamour to the profession. And the cost of designing and building to support that staffing isn’t cheap. Nor is the cost of moving a manned vessel. Rolls Royce Holdings Plc expects their autonomous ships to burn 15% less fuel than one comparably equipped and staffed with humans.

Early autonomous cargo ships will likely be smaller and closer to shore, but with success, comes size. Watch for large ocean-crossing autonomous ships in the not too distant future.

On the more impressive front, Natilus Inc. is a California startup with the goal of having a network of 140 foot unmanned aerial vehicles carrying 200,000 pounds of cargo, by air, within the next five years. The drones fly over water only, removing one of the huge obstacles to drone transport. No need for airports. They take off from and land in water. No landing gear, no landing strip, cruising at 20,000 feet. By Natilus’ estimates, these drones could cut air cargo transport costs by 50%. Ambitious dreams for a little start-up, but what a shakeup that would be.

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