Rolls-Royce has been interested in commercial autonomous ships for some years, but now the company is looking at robotic naval vessels. These 60-m (197-ft), 700-tonne (771-ton) open deck, single-role ships would operate without crews for over a hundred days with a range of 3,500 nm (4,027 mi, 6,482 km) and a top speed of over 25 knots (29 mph, 26 km/h).

One of the biggest single expenses and the hardest item to recruit for a navy is sailors, which is the reason most of the world's advanced sea powers are turning more and more to automation. This allows the next generation of aircraft carriers and submarines to be larger and more capable than their predecessors, yet carry smaller crews.

However, there's more at stake than expense. Today's navy personnel aren't deck swabbers and brass polishers. They are valuable, highly skilled professionals and fleet commanders are loath to waste them on repetitive, routine duties when they could be better employed elsewhere.

The Rolls-Royce concept vessel would take over many of today's single-role missions, including sonar sweeps around battlegroups, patrol and surveillance, mine hunting, and harbor guarding. This would free up manned ships to take on challenging, multi-role missions as part of a mixed fleet.

To achieve this, Rolls-Royce says that these autonomous ships would have to put a premium on reliability and low maintenance. This would require an all-electric propulsion system, which would need fewer auxiliaries, like lubricating and cooling systems. The initial concept design would include two 4-MW Rolls-Royce MTU 4000 Series gensets to power a 1.5-MW propulsion drive. Meanwhile, Permanent Magnet Azipull thrusters and a bow-mounted tunnel thruster would make the vessel more maneuverable.

Later designs might use small gas turbines for greater reliability. Additional power and stealth capability would be provided by a 3,000-kWh energy storage system, while photovoltaic solar panels would help power ship's systems while on standby.

Because the autonomous ship must, by definition, operate without a crew, the concept would use advanced Intelligent Asset Management and system redundancy as well as Rolls-Royce's suite of autonomous support tools, like the company's Intelligent Awareness System using multiple sensors combined with artificial intelligence, Energy Management, Equipment Health Monitoring, and predictive and remote maintenance to keep it operating while at sea. All of this would be backed by an end-to-end cybersecurity system.

"Rolls-Royce is seeing interest from major navies in autonomous, rather than remote controlled, ships. Such ships offer a way to deliver increased operational capability, reduce the risk to crew and cut both operating and build costs," says Benjamin Thorp, Rolls-Royce, General Manager Naval Electrics, Automation and Control. "Over the next 10 years or so, Rolls-Royce expects to see the introduction of medium sized unmanned platforms, particularly in leading navies, as the concept of mixed manned and unmanned fleets develops. With our experience and capabilities we expect to lead the field."

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