Is This The Cruise Ship Of The Future?

It's gonna take more than a robot bartender to save the cruise industry's sinking reputation
Artist's rendering of the North Star, a giant crane that carries cruisers 300 feet above sea level. Royal Caribbean

Chad the skydiving instructor motioned for me to cross my arms across my chest and take the plunge. Nervous, I took one last breath and let my body tip over the side and into the wind, which was rushing up at me at 120 miles per hour. And then I was floating, spread-eagled on my stomach, with my hands out flat in front of my face. I felt the wind slapping at all the flesh on my body.

But I wasn’t jumping out of a plane. I was on a boat, safe inside a skydiving simulator on the new Quantum of the Seas—Royal Caribbean’s towering white 16-story wedding cake of a ship , which supposedly represents the future of the cruise industry. I grinned, then realized I was probably speckling Chad with spittle as the wind in the simulator flapped my lips. After that I made a greater effort to keep my mouth closed.

Besides the giant wind tunnel, the ship offers a robotic bartender, moving “robo-screens” for its live entertainment, and virtual balconies. It’s the first in a class of ships that Royal Caribbean hopes will attract adventure-seeking, wired young cruise customers.

Royal Caribbean paid for a gaggle of journalists and travel agents to stay on the ship for two nights, and plied us with unlimited food and drinks—usually a journalist’s Kryptonite. However, as I had learned on the previous day, we would also be guinea pigs, testing out the ship’s technology before paying customers set foot on board.

At the check-in line, after some hesitation, an employee prints me off my SeaPass (a.k.a. room key) and I drag my luggage around the quarter-mile-long ship to my room. I have a balcony and a view of the ocean—Sweet! But three pieces of somebody else’s luggage are already open on the bed and floor. I retreat to the hallway.

virtual balcony

The staff at Guest Services are confused and apologetic. They’re trying out a new computer new system at the brand new port facility. “They’re doing things down there,” says one employee, gesturing toward the other end of the hangar-sized building, “and we’re doing things over here,” and maybe that’s why my room was double-booked.

My second room contains a half-naked man with a white towel tied around his waist, hunched over his desk eating a bowl of soup or cereal or something. He doesn’t see me open the door, but, feeling like a creep, I blurt out “Oh God, sorry–!” and close the door. It doesn’t close all the way, so I push it closed, harder, a second time. Awkward.

By now, my friend has arrived on the scene, so I make him open the next room, dreading what we’ll find inside, but thankfully this one’s empty. We move in. Jerry, our cabin steward, knocks on the door and asks if my friend’s name is Massimo, which is what his clipboard says. After Jerry leaves, we deadbolt the door in case Massimo shows up to claim his room.

By now we’ve worked up an appetite. Unlike other cruise ships, where everyone eats the same food in one massive dining room, Quantum of the Seas has 18 different restaurants. To reserve a seat at a particular restaurant, you have to use a smartphone app called Royal iQ. Unfortunately the app thinks that I am zero years old, and it doesn’t even recognize my friend’s existence. So it’s back to Guest Services for us. Ricardo from Guest Services registers us for the next few meals and for the other events we would attend that evening. It is Ricardo who informs me that they’re using this press event to work out all the technological kinks.

About an hour later, IT has fixed the problem, and my age on the app has changed to 26 years—which is how much I feel I’ve aged in the past few hours.

Robots Vs. Dancers

After an uneventful dinner, we proceed to Deck 5 to watch Starwater, a dance show that Royal Caribbean made just for the Quantum of the Seas. A 22-foot-tall, 105-foot-long, 12K projection screen provides the backdrop for the performers on stage, while “RoboScreens” bob around just above the dancers’ heads at stage left.

The venue has six robo-screens, built from six single-armed industrial robots that are repurposed from a Porsche factory. Instead of putting fancy cars together, each arm tilts, turns, and rotates a screen during performances.

While the mega-sized backdrop screen provides some nice imagery (including a moonrise and stormy waters), the much-touted robo-screens are mostly a distraction. The screens wiggle, flash, and display various imagery throughout the show, but ultimately, even Starwater seems to have had a hard time finding ways to integrate the robo-screens with the human performers.

When “encores” rain down on the performers at the end of the show, the announcer asks the audience to give it up for the robo-screens, but gets only polite applause in response. Nary a hoot nor holler nor whistle can be heard.

Skydiving And Robo-Bartenders

The next morning, no land is in sight and the ship is swaying like a drunkard. This is the day we are let loose to try out a number of fun things onboard, including the skydiving simulator. On Deck 15, the ship has what’s essentially a playground for both kids and adults, called SeaPlex, with rock climbing, zip-lining, bumper cars, a surfing simulator, and even a flying trapeze. Royal Caribbean says the point of all this stuff is to appeal to younger, adventuresome vacationers. (One may wonder why a thrill-seeker would volunteer to be pampered/trapped on a cruise ship for a week, but such musings are outside the scope of this reporter’s beat.)

After my moderately exhilarating ride in the skydiving simulator, it’s time for a drink. Down on Deck 5, two more Porsche-building robot arms are put to good use as bartenders. At first it’s hard not to be impressed by the human-sized robo-bartenders.

To order a drink at the Bionic Bar, you scan your SeaPass on one of the tablets mounted around the room, which provides a list of cocktail recipes the robot knows. For some reason, my SeaPass has stopped working (maybe it thinks I’m zero years old again?), so I use my friend’s instead. Though I want to order an old-fashioned, for irony’s sake, it’s not on the list. I order a Fembot instead.

First, the robot cleans the mixing mug and dries it. For ice, it hits a lever on a regular ice machine installed in the wall. Then it moves up to the ceiling, where at least 100 bottles of liquor are suspended upside down, no doubt meticulously arranged in a pattern that the robot has memorized. Attached to each bottle’s spout is a shot glass and a nozzle that, when the robo-arm pushes it upward with the mug, fills the shot glass. Once full of Jose Cuervo, the shot glass tips over and empties into the mug. It does the same for the Peach Schnapps. Then it goes back to the wall-mounted soda fountain for some Sprite. Finally, the robo arm shakes the mug up and down (in a process that’s kind of adorable). When the drink is finished, it pours the drink into my plastic cup, which sits on a conveyor belt.

The belt moves forward, attempting to deliver my Fembot to me, but gets stuck midway. It jerks backward and my drink spills everywhere. My second drink, the Galactic Melon, arrives in one piece, though it isn’t very strong.

I attempted to reorder the Fembot on a few different occasions, but either the drink is cursed or the robo-bartenders are sexist. Each time I went back, the robots were acting buggy or were shut down for repairs, so I had to seek out a human bartender instead.

What The Cruise Industry Really Needs

While riding in Quantum‘s North Star—a giant crane that carries you ever-so-slowly over the sides of the ship and up to 300 feet above sea level—I got an up-close view of one of the ship’s smokestacks. Billowing out was a thin smoke, the color of the insides of a dirty diaper. It’s not something you’d probably notice from the luxurious deck chairs.

One of the most important technologies onboard the Quantum of the Seas was barely advertised. Beneath the bow of the ship, an air compressor shoots out streams of bubbles that stick to the hull and make it easier for the ship to move through the water. Richard Pruitt, Royal Caribbean’s Vice President for Safety and Environmental Stewardship, calls this an air lubrication system. Pruitt estimates it can reduce fuel consumption by three to 10 percent, because instead of pushing through viscous water, the ship glides on a thin layer of air.

The Quantum of the Seas is one of the most environmentally friendly ships on the seas—or at least that’s what I was told multiple times during the course of my 36-hour cruise. The ship has all sorts of systems in place to decrease fuel consumption, from the propeller design to the LED and fluorescent lighting used throughout the ship.

In recent years, cruise companies have made a lot of progress in cleaning up their act when it comes to the environment. But a large proportion of the industry relies on old ships using outdated technologies.

Skydiving simulators and robotic bartenders are cool, but here are five innovations that would be a lot more exciting to see on every cruise ship.

1. Stop Dumping Poop In The Ocean

During a one-week voyage, a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers generates an estimated 210,000 gallons of sewage. When it gets dumped into the ocean, raw sewage can introduce E.coli and other gross bacteria, as well as toxic heavy metals and nutrients that can suffocate aquatic animals. Technically, cruise ships are allowed to dump raw sewage into the ocean once they’re more than 12 nautical miles from shore. Thankfully, few cruise ships do that (or they don’t own up to it, it least).

To treat their sewage, many cruise ships use outdated “marine sanitation devices”—35-year-old technology that typically just mixes the sewage with chemicals to reduce the bacteria before releasing it into the ocean, says Marcie Keever, the Oceans and Vessels coordinator at Friends Of Earth. These older systems leave behind a lot of gunk—as much as 200 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water and 150 milligrams of “suspended solids” per liter of water.

Advanced Sewage Treatment Systems are more likely to treat sewage with bacteria that help to break down the solids and eat up the nutrients, while also filtering it and treating it with chlorine or ultraviolet radiation to kill bacteria. The result is water that would theoretically be safe to drink, though no one does.

This is not new technology. Some companies, including Royal Caribbean, use advanced wastewater treatment on all their ships. But 40 percent of cruise ships still use wastewater treatment technology that’s 35-years-old. Keever says that one company, Carnival “has the biggest fleet of cruise ships in the world, and only two have installed advanced sewage treatment. They’re really being in our opinion, irresponsible.”

2. Find Safer Ways To Keep Barnacles Off

Retirees aren’t the only organisms that like to go on cruises. For things like barnacles and algae, the bottom of a ship can be the perfect place to park—and their presence can create a lot of drag, increasing fuel consumption by up to 40 percent.

Coating ships’ hulls with a tin-based substance called tributyltin initially did an amazing job at preventing such “biofouling”. And no wonder, because it turned out to be toxic to marine organisms. It was banned in 2008, and the safety of copper coatings has also been called into question.

Researchers are now working on finding ecologically safe alternatives that don’t rely on biocides and heavy metals—for example by mimicking shark skin patterns, or using molecules called zwitterions to deter bacteria from attaching to the hull. These new non-toxic coatings, however, are not yet ready for commercial use, and scientists still need to prove they’re safe and effective.

3. Burn Cleaner Fuels

Down in the belly of the Quantum of the Seas, while the ship was cruising at a relatively slow speed, Richard Pruitt told us that the ship was probably consuming around 2.5 tons of fuel per hour. At higher speeds, it burns even more. Not only does that add up to a lot of carbon emissions, but to make matters worse, cruise ships tend to rely on bottom-of-the barrel fuels, which are less expensive but more polluting. Every day, a typical cruise ship emits more sulfur than 13 million cars, and more soot than a million cars. Those pollutants cause thousands of deaths per year through respiratory ailments and asthma.

Some cruise companies (including Royal Caribbean) have voluntarily made the switch to slightly cleaner fuels, and/or they use scrubbers to capture some of the harmful emissions. Others do not. The good news is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with the International Maritime Organization to enact stricter regulations on the quality of fuel that ships can burn, and how much sulfur and soot they can release into the air. By 2020, the new 2015 standards—which apply to all ships, not just cruise ships—are expected to cut sulfur emissions by 920,000 (or 86 percent), and reduce soot by 90,000 tons (74 percent).

4. Incorporate Sails And Solar Panels

Slate‘s Nina Rastogi calculated that a week-long Western Caribbean cruise on a Carnival ship would generate 2,137 pounds of carbon dioxide for every person onboard. A round-trip flight would emit a lot less—more like 340 pounds of CO2 per person. Admittedly that estimate doesn’t include accommodations, food, or entertainment. Nevertheless, numerous experts have said that cruise ships emit several times more carbon than other modes of travel.

Ships can reduce their emissions by slowing down. But there are other, more interesting ways to cut emissions. In a kind of nautical throwback, some ships are turning to sail power. So far it’s mostly luxury cruise lines that have adopted wind propulsion, but a few larger cargo vessels have used sails for supplemental power as well. Shipbuilders at STX Europe envision a cruise ship driven largely by wind and solar, which the company estimates will slash fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 50 percent.

Though a 6,000-passenger mega-cruise ship couldn’t realistically be moved by sails and solar panels alone, supplementing diesel engines can help save on fuel costs while also helping the environment.

About 60 percent of Quantum‘s power gets used to move the ship. Most of the rest goes toward supplying the ship with electricity. Why not use solar panels or wind turbines to take care of that? On Celebrity’s Solstice, for example, 216 solar panels generate as much as 52 kilowatts of power, or enough to light up 7000 LED bulbs.

5. Pursue Hydrogen Fuel

Though Quantum of the Seas and other cruise ships are taking steps in the right direction, the inescapable fact is that the modern cruise ship is the size of a small city, and moving that small city from port-to-port will never be environmentally friendly unless cruise lines can find greener fuels. Hydrogen fuel cells may one day provide the solution.

Hydrogen fuel cells work by reacting hydrogen with oxygen. As the molecules bond together, they release heat and energy, which can be harnessed to do work. The byproduct is water.

A recent report from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) suggests that using hydrogen for marine propulsion is a long way off, since the technology needs to be refined, plus ships need to find a way to safely store hydrogen (which is highly flammable) onboard, and a worldwide infrastructure would need to be developed to deliver a steady supply for ships.

However, if those wrinkles get ironed out, “high temperature fuel cells have the potential to achieve efficiencies similar to?if not better than those of large marine diesel engines,” says the IMO report. “If, in the future, a hydrogen economy is adopted, then hydrogen may become a realistic marine fuel option.”

Smaller ships are already demonstrating that hydrogen fuel cells can work, including Nemo H2, an 88-person hydrogen-powered boat in Amsterdam, and Hamburg’s Alsterwasser, a 100-person ferry that’s driven by a pair of 48 kW hydrogen fuel cells.

The Cruise Ship Of The Future

Despite Royal Caribbean’s ample use of terms like “cutting edge”, “game-changing”, and “groundbreaking”, most of the technology on Quantum of the Seas only goes skin-deep. They’re new toys added onto the same old mega-sized cruise ship. Is that really what cruise ships need? I came away from my two-night stay feeling frazzled from dealing with the technological glitches, the pressure to try everything on the ship, and the waiting in lines. That’s not how I’d want to spend a vacation.

What would it take for a twenty-something-year-old like me to book a vacation on a cruise ship? I’d like to take a vacation that I wouldn’t be ashamed to tell my colleagues about, because my relaxation didn’t come at a steep expense to the environment. I’d like to sail on a ship that’s clean enough to take me to new destinations, where I could perhaps have an actual adventure without damaging the local ecosystems. It’s a lot to ask, but that ship o’dreams would be a real game-changer.