Marine

Rolls-Royce predicts robotic ships will be on the water by 2020

In the not too distant future, robotic ships without any decks could be sailing the world's oceans
In the not too distant future, robotic ships without any decks could be sailing the world's oceans
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Artist's concept of a robotic dry carrier
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Artist's concept of a robotic dry carrier
Artist's concept of a robotic LNG carrier
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Artist's concept of a robotic LNG carrier
Artist's concept of a robotic ship showing a streamlined structure
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Artist's concept of a robotic ship showing a streamlined structure
In the not too distant future, robotic ships without any decks could be sailing the world's oceans
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In the not too distant future, robotic ships without any decks could be sailing the world's oceans
Artist's concept of a robotic cargo ship
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Artist's concept of a robotic cargo ship
Robotic ships may carry a token crew at first
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Robotic ships may carry a token crew at first
Artist's concept of a robotic container ship
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Artist's concept of a robotic container ship
Robotic ships would rely on autonomous decision making
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Robotic ships would rely on autonomous decision making
Robotic ships would have no deckhouse
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Robotic ships would have no deckhouse
Robotic fleets would be controlled by shore stations, but would be largely autonomous
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Robotic fleets would be controlled by shore stations, but would be largely autonomous
Control stations would require real-time broadband communications
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Control stations would require real-time broadband communications
Robotic ships require carefully planned routes
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Robotic ships require carefully planned routes
Collaborative tables would allow operators to solve problems on remote robotic ships
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Collaborative tables would allow operators to solve problems on remote robotic ships
Operators could remotely control entire ships
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Operators could remotely control entire ships
A remote engineer handles a propulsion problem
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A remote engineer handles a propulsion problem
A 3D collaborative table in a control station
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A 3D collaborative table in a control station
The FinFerries vessel Stella
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The FinFerries vessel Stella
Stella will be used to study robotic ship sensors
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Stella will be used to study robotic ship sensors
Results from Stella will be used to build a technology demonstrator
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Results from Stella will be used to build a technology demonstrator

In 2014, Rolls-Royce unveiled its vision of the robotic cargo ship of the future that it believes will become a reality by 2020. This week at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam, the Rolls-Royce-led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative (AAWA) presented a white paper outlining what such autonomous vessels might be like and what hurdles stand between them and the open sea.

According to Rolls-Royce, the ships of the future will have as much in common with the ships of today as the Santa Maria has with HMS Queen Elizabeth. Without human crews, autonomous ships would operate under computer control aided by shore operators. The giant cargo vessels would look like surfaced whales with smooth decks (if they have decks) and no superstructures. They would also be eerily quiet as they glide along the sea lanes using eco-friendly engines.

How to get to this tomorrow is the topic of the AAWA white paper (PDF) developed by Rolls-Royce in conjunction with a consortium of partners, including Finferries, ESL Shipping, Tampere University of Technology, and Brighthouse Intelligence. Part of a €6.6 million (US$7.48 million) project that runs through 2017, it identifies the areas that need to be addressed and the problems that will need to be solved to create such ships, the business case for them, and how they might be integrated into conventional shipping.

Artist's concept of a robotic ship showing a streamlined structure
Artist's concept of a robotic ship showing a streamlined structure

One key point of the white paper is that there is no one-size-fits all solution to making an autonomous ship and nobody is going to just slap a black box on the bridge of an existing ship and hit the Go button. Such ships will appear gradually as the technology develops and, like many cloud-based systems, autonomous ships will need time to create a large database to draw from as many types of ships for many missions are built.

An element that all of these ships will have in common, according to the paper, is that they will be computer controlled with arrays of sensors that will include cameras, infrared systems, radar, lidar, microphones, sonar, and GPS. However, the tricky bit will be figuring out how to deal with all the bandwidth these require and whether they can operate in real time.

This is just one problem that would need to be solved, but AAWA says that the advantages of such ships would be potentially immense. Ships could be built without the need for crew quarters, deckhouse, lifeboats, or even decks. They would be much cheaper to build and operate and would carry more cargo. Ship design would be more flexible, human errors would be reduced, and the new technologies would provide new, disruptive business opportunities similar to those of Uber and Spotify in their fields.

A remote engineer handles a propulsion problem
A remote engineer handles a propulsion problem

Central to the autonomous ships would be their ability to make decisions in what the paper calls "adjustable" or "dynamic" autonomy. That is, there are many levels of autonomy, from the lowest where the computer does nothing but follow human orders, to the highest where the computer won't even listen to humans. The ships would be programmed to select the level of autonomy suitable to the task at hand.

Most of the time, the ship is completely autonomous, such as on the high seas, and if something happens, the computer can either make its own corrections without human intervention, ask for human approval, or turn over complete control as appropriate. It's an area where the paper says the technology is already well developed thanks to autonomous cars, aviation drones, and robotics.

The paper even foresees a time when a robotic ship will be able to coordinate directly with other ships in the area. Eventually, the ships will develop the ability to learn from their own experiences and that of other ships to improve performance.

Robotic ships would rely on autonomous decision making
Robotic ships would rely on autonomous decision making

But as situations become more complicated and ambiguous, even the most advanced machine will require human intervention. Weather and other conditions can change suddenly and unpredictably, equipment can break down, and the computer's programming can be overwhelmed or even deliberately attacked. In these situations, it needs the ability to revert to default and fallback positions in the event of a communications failure, with responses ranging from wait for recontact to head for a designated safe area.

The main backup for the autonomous ship would be a series of shore-based control centers linked to the ship by satellite and land-based communications. These communications would need to be bidirectional, accurate, scalable, and supported by multiple systems for redundancy and minimal risk. The operators at these stations would be able to monitor several ships at any one time, identify and correct problems in real time, act as direct contacts with human skippers as needed, and collaborate remotely on problems.

As to human crews, the ideal towards which Rolls-Royce is aiming is a ship with no need of one, but in the short and medium term, deckhands of flesh and blood will still play a part. At first, they may be required for legal reasons or at the insistence of insurance firms to sit about acting as emergency standby sailors or to help in dealing with conventional ships and skippers until standard practices are established. It's expected that humans will be needed in ports for longer, to ensure that cargos are properly secured.

Collaborative tables would allow operators to solve problems on remote robotic ships
Collaborative tables would allow operators to solve problems on remote robotic ships

Then there are the legal headaches of robotic ships. Is an autonomous ship legally a ship? Who is liable in the event of an accident? How must they conform to regulations or should the regulations be rewritten? What about in emergencies? Since robotic ships can't provide aid to distressed vessels directly, will it be enough for them to help with their superior sensors to guide and direct rescue vessels?

To answer these questions and to develop the technical, legal, and safety specifications, AAWA is aiming for a proof of concept demonstrator by the end of next year. In addition, it is working on simulators, and is testing different sensor technologies onboard the FinFerries vessel Stella, which runs between Korpo and Houtskär in Finland.

"This is happening. It's not if, it's when," says Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation. "The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade."

The video below shows Rolls-Royce's vision of the autonomous ship control station of the future.

Source: Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce | Future shore control centre

13 comments
Jugen
The engineer does all the work and the others are just there to support a tablet and a cup of coffee.
DomainRider
What about piracy? How are they going to deter or prevent physical theft or hijack?
amazed W1
At what speed does a submarine use less energy to move than the equivalent carrying capacity surface vessel? Should the robotic vessels all travel submerged?
Nik
I agree with Domain Rider; My first thought was also, 'What about piracy? How are they going to deter or prevent physical theft or hijack?' Maybe amazed W1's query regarding submarines is the answer, they wouldn't need to be very deep, but trying to hijack a submerged vessel would be very difficult.
bobflint
Shipping companies are looking to cut costs, what do you think this will go for, versus a trained crew? Besides those drones won't deployed during heavy winds, fog, storms or millions of other reasons, least of the pirates already on board... By the way that strange noisy you think you hear is a torch cutting an opening inside...
Lawnmowerman
With no hostages available and a sealed hull, it would be pretty hard to hijack.
Kenlbear2
This ship scares the hell out of me. I'm a crushing sailor. A ship like this can come up on you at night, quiet and invisible, and never sees you. With no human witnesses, you never existed and now you're shark meat. I don't see the slightest consideration to sailboats on this ad. There are no traffic lights at sea, RR! There is no way to avoid shipping lanes on a sailboat!
GWA111
Other hazards not considered, silting in harbours, piloting through narrow channels etc - this is not realistic at all. We have not progressed technology far enough to enable full automation - I know this as I work in marine automation. Tidal currents etc are also an issue, as well as anyone at sea understands - no matter how large the vessel, you can have the correct heading and still end up miles off course. You can never replace human judgement as so many accidents at sea are already attributed to navigational auto-pilot systems and the heading/course issue. Rolls Royce have made a lot of far fetched assumptions here - but she looks nice :-)
MattII
Too many problems for 2020, including issues like piracy, equipment failure, etc. Maybe by 2050 though...
habakak
I am amazed about all the concerns over piracy. Very few ships gets attached by pirates. It's just been in the news lately. With no humans on board, it will involve less exposure, insurance and risk in case of attack by pirates. A good thing. Also, who says an autonomous system will be less able to avoid pirates than a human crew? The ship can be remotely monitored. Launch some drones and take those pirates out (many ways to do that without killing them). This tech is in relative infancy, but it is the future. In 20 years it will be well on the way to going mainstream. Ships have been getting bigger and crews smaller. This is the end goal of the trend. People building wooden ships were making the same short-sighted assumptions and comments about the first concepts or steel ships. Or sail boats vs steam boats, etc. Horse carriages vs automobiles. Just like people currently are nay-saying the impending change to renewable energy and autonomous electric cars. Electric cars has had many false starts. 'Proof' that it won't work. Its all about battery cost and energy density expressed in $ per kw/hr. We will be there in 5 to 10 years.