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Rolls-Royce Robotic Ship Plans on Track

Monday, June 27, 2016

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A self-driving Rolls-Royce may be a reality in the very near future, but we’re not talking about a luxury car. The British company’s marine division is part of a consortium working on autonomous ship technology that could change the face of overseas shipping in the next few years.

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative—known as AAWA—is a project that combines top maritime manufacturers with researchers in Finland to work on making remote and autonomous shipping a reality, sooner than later. Rolls-Royce predicts the technology will be in use by the end of this decade.

Rolls Royce autonomous ship concept
Images: Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce first revealed its “robot ship” concept in 2014.

Rolls-Royce, which first revealed its “robot ship” concept in 2014, is a leading member of the AAWA; other maritime companies involved include Inmarsat and Deltamarin.

New Whitepaper

The project is set to look at both the technology needed to make self-driving ships viable, and the legal and safety concerns that must be examined before the technology can be put into place. In a whitepaper released Tuesday (June 21), Rolls and the AAWA outline challenges and recommendations for the “next steps” in order to bring about autonomous shipping quickly.

The document discusses some of the conclusions the group has come to after “Phase 1” of its work, and what’s to come in “Phase 2.”

Concept control center for remotely controlled ships

The paper notes that, as opposed to autonomous cars, there would be a relatively small fleet of robot ships, so they could be monitored by humans in a control center.

The group says it’s concluded that ships won’t be solely autonomous or remotely operated, but will employ a mix of both technologies. They say that autonomous ships will be as safe as human-operated ships if not safer, and that laws can be changed to make autonomous and remote shipping viable.

In Use by 2020

The next steps involve exploring legal and technical challenges while coming up with a full-scale proof of concept by the end of 2017, AAWA says, then remote controlled ships in commercial use by 2020. “The revolution has begun,” the introductory chapter of the whitepaper concludes.

Autonomous ships would have to be equipped with sensors to help the navigational computer (or remote human controller) to understand the ship’s physical surroundings. Experimentation with sensors is taking place this year, on a vessel operated in Finnish waters by FinFerries.

The Challenges

Challenges to autonomous ship implementation include, of course, the fact that it’s tough to quickly stop or steer a large vessel—while a car that senses an object a few feet ahead can be stopped in time, a ship needs to be scanning much further ahead.

Concept remote controlled cargo ship

Legal issues that will need to be resolved include “whether ships without a crew on board are ‘ships’ or ‘vessels’ within the meaning of the convention at all.”

Additionally, weather plays a greater role in ship navigation than it does in auto navigation. The AAWA proposal suggests that weather prediction would be an integral part of any autonomous ship control system.

The AAWA paper notes that, as opposed to autonomous cars, which would theoretically be deployed en masse, there would be a relatively small fleet of robot ships, so they could be monitored by humans in a control center, who could intervene remotely if they felt it necessary.

Maritime Law

Legal issues that will need to be resolved include, the paper notes, “whether ships without a crew on board are ‘ships’ or ‘vessels’ within the meaning of the convention at all.” Liability and jurisdiction with regard to autonomous ships are matters that will have to be worked out before the technology is implemented at any great scale.

That’s plenty to iron out before this becomes a reality—but Rolls-Royce and its AAWA partners hold that it’s all going to come together. “This is happening,” Oskar Levander, Vice President of Innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine, said. “It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist.”


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; Marine; North America; Program/Project Management; Technology

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