As above, so below.

If drone fleets can flutter through our skies, transporting merchandise and conveying web connectivity, then why can’t unmanned ships roam our seas?

So asks Rolls-Royce, the luxury engine-maker, whose vice president of innovation, engineering and technology, Oskar Levander, wrote in a statement on the company’s site, “Sometimes what was unthinkable yesterday is tomorrow’s reality.”

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“Holistic ship design” addresses the fundamental problems that weigh most heavily upon the $375 billion shipping industry, Levander added: “fuel, finance, cargo handling and crew.”

And so the company’s Blue Ocean team has developed a prototype at its Norwegian headquarters, which it hopes might be deployed within the Baltic Sea region in as soon as a decade. Global adoption would theoretically take place thereafter.

The effort by Rolls-Royce comes on the heels of an announced $4.8 million research project funded by the European Union entitled Maritime Unmanned through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN).

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Perhaps best known for its swanky automobiles, Rolls-Royce’s marine division accounts for 16 percent of total revenues, reports Bloomberg.

While the concept of a drone vessel may seem enticing, it is also illegal. International regulation currently calls for strict minimum crew requirements, and the world’s largest seafaring union is staunchly opposed to the idea.

And then there’s the issue -- faced by any self-operating machine -- of hack attacks. Although a recent study showed that a proliferation of self-driving cars by mid-century could be tantalizing to hackers, Levander told Bloomberg that unmanned fleets -- being hostage-less -- would run less of a risk for piracy.

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