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Rolls-Royce designs drone cargo ships

NEW YORK — Hoping to join the age of aerial drones and driverless cars, Rolls-Royce Holdings is designing unmanned cargo ships.

Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team has set up a virtual reality prototype at its Norway office that simulates 360-degree views from a vessel’s bridge. Eventually, the London-based manufacturer of engines and turbines says, captains on land will use similar control centers to command hundreds of crewless ships.

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Drone ships would be safer, cheaper, and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry that carries 90 percent of world trade, Rolls-Royce says. They might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade, while regulatory hurdles and industry and union skepticism about cost and safety will slow global adoption, said Oskar Levander, the company’s vice president of innovation in marine engineering and technology.

‘‘Now the technology is at the level where we can make this happen, and society is moving in this direction,’’ Levander said by phone.

Despite a line of critics ready to throw cold water on the idea, the European Union is funding a $4.8 million study on crewless navigation on the seas. The researchers are preparing the prototype for simulated trials to assess the costs and benefits, which will finish next year, said Hans-Christoph Burmeister at the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services CML in Hamburg.

Maritime companies, insurers, engineers, labor unions, and regulators doubt unmanned ships could be safe and cost-effective any time soon.

The potential savings don’t justify the investments that would be needed to make unmanned ships safe, said Tor Svensen, chief executive of maritime for DNV GL, the largest company certifying vessels for safety standards.

‘‘I don’t think personally that there’s a huge cost benefit in unmanned ships today, but technologically it’s possible,’’ Svensen said earlier this month at New York conference. ‘‘My prediction is that it’s not coming in the foreseeable future.’’

The International Association of Classification Societies in London hasn’t developed unified guidelines for unmanned ships, secretary Derek Hodgson said.

‘‘Can you imagine what it would be like with an unmanned vessel with cargo on board trading on the open seas? You get in enough trouble with crew on board,’’ Hodgson said by phone. ‘‘There are an enormous number of hoops for it to go through before it even got onto the drawing board.’’

Unmanned ships are currently illegal under international conventions that set minimum crew requirements, said Simon Bennett, a spokesman for the London-based International Chamber of Shipping, an industry association representing more than 80 percent of the global fleet.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, the union representing about 600,000 of the world’s more than 1 million seafarers, is opposed.

‘‘It cannot and will never replace the eyes, ears, and thought processes of professional seafarers,’’ Dave Heindel, chairman of the ITF’s seafarers’ section in London, said in a statement. ‘‘The human element is one of the first lines of defense in the event of machinery failure and the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions in which the world’s seas specialize.’’

Rolls-Royce started developing designs last year. Marine accounts for 16 percent of the company’s revenue, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Descended from the luxury car brand now operated by BMW AG, Rolls-Royce also makes plane engines and turbines.

The company’s schematics show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the bridge structure where the crew works. By replacing the bridge — along with the other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water, and sewage — with more cargo, ships can cut costs and boost revenue, Levander said. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel, he said.

Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship, according to Moore Stephens LLP, an industry consultant.

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