On December 5, 1872, the merchant ship Marie Celeste was discovered drifting in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, unmanned and apparently abandoned. The weather was fine, the ship well stocked but the crew had vanished and was never seen again. It’s often cited as the greatest maritime mystery of all time.

More than 150 years later the prospect of unmanned cargo vessels sailing the major shipping lanes of the world’s oceans is being touted as the wave of the future.

You’ve heard of driverless cars and flying drones that can carry combat missions or deliver packages, so why not drone ships? Can you imagine a Somali pirate’s face when he clambers on board and finds no-one there... where’s Captain Phillips?

Despite muffled sniggering from some quarters the highly regarded British engine maker Rolls-Royce is moving ahead with developing a prototype or at least a simulator that shows the possibilities of drone ships.

Last year Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce’s vice president for innovation in marine engineering, first praised the benefits of drone cargo ships at an industry conference. Skeptics scoffed but Levander says his company wants to be at the forefront and won’t be deterred.

Rolls-Royce has created a virtual-reality drone prototype in Norway that simulates 360-degree views from a ship’s bridge. Those images are provided by cameras on board that are then beamed back to operators based in a virtual bridge. The idea is that captains will be able to control and manipulate fleets of crewless ships from land simply by operating a very sophisticated control panel.

Levander says it’s not a case of whether the technology is possible -- it already is. It’s more a case of whether the industry is ready to accept it. Rolls-Royce believes the drones would be cheaper, safer and less polluting for the $375 billion shipping industry.

But it’s not just Rolls-Royce that is droning on. The European Union is funding its own $4.8 million study of unmanned vessels and hopes to have a digital prototype for simulated sea trials ready to go next year. But before you think it’s full steam ahead, there is likely to be extensive opposition for a number of groups.

Maritime operators, insurers, engineers, labor unions, and regulators are all raising red flags, saying they doubt unmanned ships could be safe and cost-effective anytime soon.

But Rolls-Royce’s Levander says, why not? Research shows crew costs account for about 44% of operating expenses for a large container ship. Levander says when ships are empty they are 5% lighter and use up to 15% less fuel. Also, if the crew’s living quarters were replaced with cargo space and other internal systems eliminated such as air conditioning and sewage systems, the boat would be even more cost effective.

Right now, unmanned ships are illegal under international conventions, which set minimum crew sizes. Insurers say if drones don’t comply with such rules, they’d be considered unseaworthy and ineligible for insurance. Not surprisingly, unions are also unimpressed. They say ships need humans in the event of machinery failure or the kind of unexpected and sudden changes of conditions that are not uncommon in the world’s oceans.

But Levander offers a counter argument, saying humans will provide no safety advantage once the prototype improves the remote control function while also providing preventive maintenance and emergency backups. He claims that cameras and sensors can already detect obstacles in the water better than the human eye.

If all of this seems a little beyond belief, the U.S. Navy this month is launching the first of a new class of destroyers that basically has its own brain, computer intelligence capable of preparing the ship for battle and engaging enemy targets all on its own.

But the prospect of a computer-run U.S. Navy destroyer or behemoth cargo ship sailing the ocean unmanned is a little disturbing. Firstly, those pirates will have a much easier time boarding their target and if they can override the computer system they have the ship free and clear.

Secondly, no matter how secure a computer system claims to be there is no shortage of 14-year-old kids in their parent’s basement who can hack into it. The prospect of a huge cargo ship at sea being run by a teenage hacker who thinks it’s a video game is very unsettling.

But Rolls-Royce is pushing forward, saying the technology could eliminate or at least radically reduce the need for people and the vessels could be greatly simplified, reducing construction costs. The company says the drone ships could be operational in 10 years’ time.

Fewer people, more drones … where will the jobs be?

Ashley Webster joined FOX Business Network (FBN) in September 2007 as the Overseas Markets Editor.