With automated road vehicles apparently just around the corner, the European Union is funding a project to look at whether a similar system could be implemented at sea.
Project Munin – named after a raven from Norse mythology – would likely see international cargo shipping more energy and cost efficient.
The technology required already exists, but the safety of the systems must first be proven.
After that, changes would have to be made in international maritime regulations to allow them to travel the seas.
In a report, marine technology researcher Ørnulf Rødseth said: “The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications, and anti-collision measures already exists.”
But he added: “We mustn’t forget that current rules and legislation all assume that there are people on board.”
He said 75% of accidents at sea are caused by human error, and that automation has the potential to reduce this.
Without a human crew on board for which to extort ransoms, automated ships could be less vulnerable to piracy.
One operator – situated on land – could control up to 10 vessels at one time, according to the report.
The ships would by powered by natural gas rather than diesel fuel, which would reduce maintenance requirements.