After Autonomous Cars, Autonomous Ships Will Make Its Appearance

Rolls Royce and the Finnish State-owned company Finnferries teamed up to develop and create the first autonomous ships. When will the smart ships sail out?

Yep, it’s true. Rolls Royce has stepped up its game and collaborated with a Ferry company to create (one of) the first autonomous ships. We know that this is not news – the plan was first presented in 2016 – but it gives us an opportunity to share with you where the industry is at. Before we’re going into that topic, let’s first have a recap on Rolls Royce’s project.

Rolls Royce Leads The Way

Rolls Royce is the leading party in the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), which is funded by Tekes (Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation). The project brings together leading international maritime businesses and top Finnish universities. Rolls Royce is leading the way into this new world of smart ships by looking at other industries such as the automotive-, aviation- and the smartphone industry. In 2016 they estimated that at the end of the decade the first commercially remote controlled ship should be able to sail.

Mikael Mäkinen, President Marine at Rolls Royce is convinced that this will be the next big disrupter and states that “autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”

How Does it Work?

The technology behind the remotely controlled ships is complex, nonetheless here are some features that might you find interesting. In short AAWA has been researching several options: from high definition cameras to state of the art communication equipment. But for optimal use, it was decided to combine and fuse three main elements. In order for a ship to be able to sail autonomously, a set of fused sensors, controlled algorithms, and communication and connectivity devices are mandatory. As with other autonomous vehicles it’s important for a smart ship to monitor its own condition, to be able to know its surrounding and to communicate with other vessels or a control tower at a harbor. To get into depth on the techy stuff, click this link.

Timeline Of Smart Ships

As with other industries, the marine industry is becoming automated. The ultimate goal is to have ships sailing without any crew, completely relying on AI.

By 2020 the first commercial vessel should be operative. Those ships will still have a crew, although reduced, and parts of the ship will be remotely controlled. The first remotely controlled ship without a crew should be operational by 2025 and will do coastal operations. The first one to conquer the ocean is planned to set sail in 2030 and will have no crew, but will be remotely controlled as well. We have to be a little patient – and realistic – for the first real smart ship to take off, which will be no earlier than 2035.

Current Main Issue

For this timeline to be realistic, some issues need to be overcome. According to Forbes the first and foremost problem is safety. There are still big concerns about the size of the ships. In open waters, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but as soon as waterways are congested, this could be a potential danger. As Rolls Royce also mentioned, this problem can be solved by deploying a reduced crew to the ship that help in the decision making.

Other Examples

Rolls Royce and the Finnish state are not the only ones investing billions into smart ships. Basically the whole Japanese shipping industry is developing smart ships for their fleet. Moreover, in World Maritime News, Derek Novak, Senior Vice President, Engineering and Technology, American Bureau of Shipping, stated that “that the industry is embarking on a journey towards smart functionality, with more smart equipment and systems being installed on vessels every day.”