Rolls-Royce pushes for autonomous shipping

An autonomous ship as envisaged by Rolls-Royce. Image courtesy of Rolls Royce
An autonomous ship as envisaged by Rolls-Royce. Image courtesy of Rolls Royce

British manufacturing conglomerate Rolls-Royce has released a new white paper outlining a plan for autonomous global shipping.

Developed by the company’s Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), the white paper was unveiled last week at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam.

Primarily, the white paper aims to show that the use of autonomous ships for freight is not just technically feasible, but also economically feasible.

Additionally, it examines the safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships as well as the potential legal and regulatory issues.

Rolls-Royce is confident that this technology will be in use by 2026.

“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. […] We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade,” said Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce vice-president of innovation – marine.

In order to speed up the development of this technology, the company has been testing a new sensor array in Finland designed for autonomous control.

“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,” Levander said.

To aid this testing, Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, has funded AAWA to the tune of €6.6m.

The sensors which the project makes use of are similar to those of self-driving cars, including GPS, inertial sensors, camera feeds and short-range radar. Furthermore, existing nautical chart data will be fed back into this system to determine more accurate positioning.

Rolls-Royce envisages several different levels of autonomy within their white paper, and believes that eventually whole fleets of ships may be controlled from small, yet high-tech control rooms on land.

While the development of autonomous shipping stands to help lower costs for the companies operating these ships, Rolls-Royce, as a manufacturer of marine systems, stands to make significant profits from popularizing the technology.