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Developer: Unmanned, autonomous ships may be just 10 years away

Oct 2, 2015 03:48 PM
Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean designers have come up with concepts for autonomous cargo ships, including an LNG-fueled short-sea vessel.

Courtesy Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean designers have come up with concepts for autonomous cargo ships, including an LNG-fueled short-sea vessel.

Rolls-Royce is pushing ahead in its development of autonomous ships, launching a $7.2 million research project that aims to gradually shift vessel functions from ship to shore through a series of technological steppingstones. 

The two-year Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative is funded by Tekes, the Finnish funding agency for innovation. It will bring together university researchers, ship designers, equipment manufacturers and the classification society DNV GL to examine what needs to be done  technologically, economically and legally to make remote-control ships a reality.

London-based Rolls-Royce has been exploring the concept of unmanned cargo ships for several years — vessels that it says will be more efficient and significantly less expensive to operate (see story, PM #181, June/July 2014). The more the company has pursued it, the more convinced it has become that the future of shipping will involve moving functions away from vessels to “virtual” control rooms onshore, said Esa Jokioinen, head of Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team.

“What we concluded last year is that (autonomous) technology is developing very quickly, mainly outside the commercial marine context at the moment, and that the connectivity of vessels, which is one of the key enablers, is also developing very fast,” Jokioinen said. “Based on those facts, we believed that it was time to start the dialogue as well as the development of remote-control applications for vessels.”

Project partners from five Finnish institutions — Tampere University of Technology, VTT Technical Research Centre, Abo Akademi University, Aalto University and the University of Turku — will study previous research in the field before exploring the business case for autonomous ships, including the safety, security and regulatory implications. Rolls-Royce will handle the technological side, focusing on autonomy for propulsion, deck machinery and other equipment. U.K.-based satellite operator Inmarsat and Finnish ship designers Deltamarin and NAPA will be involved.

Jokioinen said that although it will probably be 10 years before remote-control ships ply the seas, the technology will likely advance faster than the regulations that evolve with the concept. These “steppingstones toward automation” can improve the efficiency and safety of vessels in the interim.

Rolls-Royce’s concepts for autonomous cargo ships include a bulk carrier.

Courtesy Rolls-Royce

“We want to focus on research and development in selected areas where we believe that new technologies will enable us to come up with new products and services that can be commercialized before fully autonomous ships become a reality,” he said. “Situational awareness systems can be used in many cases. Also, we are looking to further automate our existing products — for instance, deck winches and propulsion equipment — so that we are ready for autonomous operation when the regulations will allow.”

Rolls-Royce has had discussions with ship operators interested in the concept, Jokioinen said. While declining to disclose who they are, he said they all see the possibilities associated with next-generation connectivity in the marine environment.

“With shipping companies, if there is technology or a product that will make the operation more efficient, usually they are interested,” he said. “However, shipowners want proven and robust solutions. Therefore, we need some more time to develop and demonstrate the feasibility of different solutions in this area. … It is quite unlikely that anyone will go directly for a fully autonomous vessel. It most likely will be a gradual implementation of these technologies in the future.”

While Rolls-Royce’s concept has drawn interest in some quarters, it has generated skepticism among those who believe that crewless ships would be vulnerable to mechanical breakdowns and other contingencies at sea. Klaus Luhta, chief of staff for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), said the fact that the company has embarked on a new research initiative doesn’t make the fundamental idea any more credible.

“I still think it’s kind of a pipe dream at this point even with university backing,” he said. “It still seems to me that the best people to make decisions about what’s happening on a ship are the people on board the ship. When there is a problem and you don’t have personnel on board, you have a disabled ship with nobody to fix it. I don’t know where you go from there.”

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