07.07.2015, 21:25:47 (GMT+1)
First designs for autonomous ship solutions
New Rolls-Royce led project spearheads remote-control shipping revolution
First it was the driverless car, then came further futuristic concept proposals for the pilotless plane. Now, it seems, we are getting closer to a time when we’ll see the first in a new generation of crewless ships sailing across our oceans.
Maritime innovators at Rolls-Royce and the VTT Research Centre in Finland have already provided a glimpse of what the shipping future might look like by working on a collaborative, ground-breaking project to develop virtual reality bridges which may, in due course, replace conventional vessel controls. Meanwhile, the European Union is backing the autonomous ship development initiative MUNIN – Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks – which is investigating concepts for partially or fully-automated cargo vessels as part of an overarching strategy to improve efficiency, safety, carbon footprint and sustainability across the shipping industry.
Unmanned slow-steaming ships could be a potential solution for shipping companies which are under increasing pressure to reduce fuel costs, greenhouse gas and other harmful emissions at the same time as trying to improve the energy efficiency and overall performance of their vessels. Scientists, engineers and maritime innovators regard autonomous cargo vessels as an appealing and increasingly realistic alternative, particularly on deep sea and long-distance routes where the economic and environmental benefits would be most obvious.
Experts claim that most of the autonomy technology required is either already in place or being worked on. According to the shipping concept developers at MUNIN, many ships have already taken a first step towards partial or full automation by installing electric positioning, anti-collision and satellite communications systems. Sensor systems using infrared technology are also more commonplace.
The prospect of unmanned ships becoming a reality in the near future has suddenly become much more likely with Rolls-Royce announcing that it is to lead a new project to produce the specification and preliminary designs for advanced autonomous ship solutions. The new €6.6 million project, known as The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative, will be funded by Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation.
According to project partners, this game-changing autonomous ship research think-tank will bring together world-leading knowledge, innovations and inspiration from ship designers, universities, equipment manufacturers and classification societies. Together they plan to use their expertise and experience to investigate the “economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors which need to be addressed to make autonomous ships a reality”.
Technology-focused investigations, led by Rolls-Royce technicians, will study how remote control and autonomy can be used to successfully operate propulsion, deck machinery and automation and control, applying established technology, wherever possible, “for rapid commercialisation”. This wide-ranging project will explore the business case for autonomous vessels, the safety and security implications in designing and managing remotely-operated ships, legal and regulatory issues, and the availability of suppliers to deliver “commercially applicable products” in the short to medium term.
The Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean team is responsible for researching and developing future maritime technologies and focuses its attention on disruptive game-changing innovations. By combining new technologies with innovative approaches to ship design and system integration, the Blue Ocean team aims to reduce operational costs, minimise emissions and enhance the earning capability of vessels.
“Rolls-Royce has extensive experience of successfully coordinating multi-disciplinary teams developing complex technologies,” says Esa Jokioinen, who leads the Blue Ocean team. "We bring a world-leading range of capabilities in the marine market to the project including vessel design, the integration of complex systems and the supply and support of power and propulsion equipment. We are excited to be taking the first concrete steps towards making remote controlled and autonomous ship applications a reality.”
The project is set to continue until late in 2017 by which time it expects to have produced innovative, exciting solutions for the world shipping fleet’s pioneering autonomous vessels. Rauli Hulkkonen, chief adviser at Tekes, says: “This project is a fantastic opportunity to establish the Finnish maritime cluster as the world leader in maritime remote control technology.”
A few years ago the concept of fully autonomous ships was considered a possibility within 25-30 years. Now, as the winds of maritime innovation and technological change gather momentum, the hand-over of ship controls from humans to intelligent systems could be closer than we think.