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One jarring possibility for the connected age of the near future: people-free drone ships like this concept developed by Rolls-Royce.

(This article originally appeared in the Techonomy print and online magazine.)
In the 2009 sci-fi movie Sleep Dealer, laborers in a near-future dystopian world work in a Tijuana factory where, plugged into a digital network, they remotely operate robots to erect skyscrapers in New York City and fly drones over the desert. It’s another fantasy already coming true. Remotely controlled earthmovers, sensor-connected containers, and network-linked augmented reality goggles are coming to mining and shipping, industries thus far almost wholly unreconstructed by mobile tech. The Internet of Things (IoT) is going underground and out to sea.

The 18,000 containers aboard a vast new vessel unveiled this month by shipping giant CMA CGM are more than just climate-controlled cargo boxes. Embedded with technology from French IoT startup TRAXENS, each container is a smart connected object, able to share data with other containers, with the crew’s mobile devices, and with company HQ in Marseille. The devices relay the container’s location, temperature, humidity level, vibrations, any impacts or attempted break ins, and customs clearance status. Monitoring all that for every one of the 5 to 6 million containers in transit on the world’s oceans at any given moment would be a data revolution. It will eventually happen.
But other technologies will also soon transform how the world’s 100,000-plus ocean-going merchant ships are managed, operated, and maintained. Consulting and services firm Lloyd’s Register says the carrier of the future will be “smarter, data driven, greener…fully connected wirelessly onboard, and digitally connected through global satellites.”
Such ships might also be unmanned. Lloyd’s predicts tankers and cargo carriers will be guided by sensors, automation, big data, and global networks. Indeed, Rolls-Royce got to work this summer on a $7.5 million research project for the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation to produce specs and designs for a fully remote-controlled ship. Naval architect Oskar Levandar, vice president for innovation in Rolls-Royce’s Marine group, says “the main driver is to drive down costs and improve efficiencies, but the idea isn’t new.” The difference now in shipping, he says, “is that this is technically feasible, and society is more mature to accept this kind of solution.” That last thought may be slightly optimistic. We’ll see.
Even when seamen remain, technology will transform large-scale shipping. Maersk Line set out to create the world’s first mobile communication-connected fleet in 2011. It wanted information to flow in real-time between ships and shore to simplify processes, improve productivity, and enable quicker, better informed decisions.
The mobile and satellite communication technologies now on more than 350 Maersk ships enable more efficient routes and save $50 million in fuel costs each year. Refrigerated containers on each vessel are monitored wirelessly, and Internet access improves life on the ship, according to Maersk’s mobile partner Ericsson.
Augmented reality will also improve shipping. Finnish machinery company Wärtsilä this year unveiled network-linked goggles in its shipboard maintenance services. An onboard engineer with a headset can share real-time video and audio with land-based colleagues to collaborate on fixing an engine.
Among the challenges to implementing such new technologies in an old industry? Skilled workers. The crew that remains must be professionals in engineering, technology, and data analysis.
Some are already wistful for the fast-fading traditional career. A recent article in industry publication IHS Maritime 360 quoted a union representative asking “Are seafarers destined to become screenwatchers and machine minders?”
At a pilot project run by Ericsson, operators in a control room outside a Swedish mine are testing a remote-controlled Volvo truck to transport ore. Such innovations will not only keep miners out of dangerous underground conditions, but Ericsson executives say the technology also creates new economic opportunities. Operators may work in distant mines without leaving their hometown or the safety of an office park. And mineral reserves could be extracted even from the most inhospitable and remote regions.
Visitors to the enormous Ericsson exhibit at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year could try such a system. They climbed into the cab of a virtual excavator and donned a virtual reality headset. They then proceeded to dig real holes in a Stockholm parking lot 1,700 miles away, where a six-ton machine was connected via a mobile wireless network. Greg Harper, a New York tech entrepreneur who remote-scooped a pile of gravel from the convention floor, said, “I go to a lot of shows. It takes a lot to impress me. This blew my mind.” He was one of several hotdog showgoers who proudly claimed their aggressive and inexpert digging almost knocked over the Stockholm excavator.
In fact, the concept is already being tested in the real world. Ericsson and several partners in mining and equipment launched a project this year to implement advanced wireless tools to improve productivity and safety for Swedish mines. Ericsson’s Torbjörn Lundahl, program manager for next-generation 5G wireless systems, says remotecontrolled loaders could be sent into a mine after a blast to keep operations running while protecting workers from dangerous dust. Emerging 5G systems–the next generation in wireless–will be able to communicate more instantaneously over long distances than today’s networks, so if you are about to knock over your mining machine, you will be able to adjust the controls in time to keep it steady. Future machines will either be autonomous or controllable from anywhere in the world.
Remote control isn’t new to mining. The LKAB ore mine in Kiruna, Sweden, which claims to be the world’s most modern, has used a remote-controlled underground transport system since 1972, and today most of its underground production is automated. But it relies on a manned command station 775 meters underground and signals transmitted to locomotives via cables on the tunnels’ ceilings. Mines enabled by 5G wireless will make such a setup look like Fred Flintstone’s Bedrock Gravel Company.