Readers of The Naval Architect, and indeed most individuals in the maritime industry, will doubtless have noticed the growing hype surrounding remotely operated and autonomous ships. To the optimistic, they are a revolutionary development that will facilitate a digitally-driven and more efficient future. To the sceptical, they represent a lofty promise, buoyed by a lot of talk but little in the way of real progress. Critics say such vessels are an unnecessary development that may compromise safety, employment, and shipping’s tried-and-tested business model. The pragmatists see remotely operated/autonomous vessels as a promising innovation, but know maritime well enough to warn of the roadblocks of regulation and shipowners themselves.
Despite its contentious nature, a growing number of technology firms, industry bodies, shipping companies and nations are forging ahead with realising the project, betting on their prediction that remote and autonomous vessels represent the next step in the industry’s natural evolution. A risky gamble perhaps, involving significant investment, but their commitment may be more understandable when we consider that the breakout economic success stories of our age have largely been companies that have embraced digitally driven disruptive business models – for example Airbnb, Uber, and Spotify. They may have attracted consternation by tearing up the rule book, but they have remoulded the business landscape on their own terms.
This is the goal of one of the biggest players in remote and autonomous shipping, Rolls-Royce, who set out their Unmanned Vessels Vision in 2013 and have since established a dedicated R&D centre in Turku, Finland, filed nearly 40 patents, and brought the first commercial technologies to market. For Rolls-Royce, fully autonomous vessels are a case of when, not if – and as if to prove this, they have consistently scaled back their timeline, claiming that remotely operated local vessels will be viable as early as 2020, and remotely operated and autonomous ocean-going vessels by 2025: a deliberate challenge to the technology’s doubters.
A collaborative effort
The uncertain future of Rolls-Royce’s commercial marine division, which was announced as being up for sale earlier this year, doesn’t appear to have diminished the company’s confidence in delivering these goals. This may be due to the considerable support Rolls-Royce has attracted for the project, spanning technology powerhouses including Google (specifically Google Cloud) and the European Space Agency, national institutions including Finnish funding agency Tekes and the University of Turku, and maritime players from Inmarsat to DNV GL.
Such support has been actively sought by Rolls-Royce, which is keen to work collaboratively with partners who can bring their own expertise to the table and progress the project. This model reflects a growing tendency across maritime to work with rather than against competition in order to push forward technological development and secure mutal benefits. As Karno Tenuvuo, Rolls-Royce’s SVP of Ship Intelligence, puts it: “We want to partner up with world class companies that give us credibility and allow this to scale up faster.”
Besides large multinationals such as Google and ESA, support from Finnish companies and institutions has been particularly strong, as the country positions itself to become a leader in autonomous shipping and challenge its competing Scandinavian neighbours. Most reflective of this is the collaborative, Finnish-backed One Sea Autonomous Maritime Ecosystem explored in March’s edition of The Naval Architect. Established by DIMECC in 2016, the collective body includes the likes of Meyer Turku and Wärtsilä, amongst others. It also manages the Jaakonmeri test area, a section of western Finnish coastline set aside for autonomous ship research and testing.
By basing its autonomous and remote team in Turku in particular, Rolls-Royce have availed themselves of a strong local maritime cluster supported by the University of Turku. Companies based in the west-coast city include Brighthouse Intelligence, who specialise in connectivity, security, and systems engineering, and the PBI Research Institute, a research-based management consultancy specialising in energy, transport and maritime. These smaller businesses are, in Tenuvuo’s eyes, just as important as Rolls-Royce’s bigger partners: “You need to work with local startups and local SMEs to get the flexibility and speed you want in development.”
From a talent perspective, Tenuvuo suggests that Turku is a unique place where marine and IT expertise come together: “We have a unique combination of skills here. We have marine engineering capabilities, we have ship operations capabilities and then we have software development . . . when you put those together, you create that unique mix where you can bring these solutions to market.”
An autonomous experience
Rolls-Royce’s Turku R&D centre for autonomous ships, which officially opened in January, gives the company a place to focus this broad range of expertise and develop their solutions. In aid of this, the centre includes what Rolls-Royce call their ‘Remote and Autonomous Experience Space’, which The Naval Architect visited in March as part of a select media tour. Bold and cinematic, the space is designed to showcase both commercially available technologies and those still in development, to paint an exciting picture of what remote and autonomous shipping will look like. It is fitted with a number of large, fully functional table top screens which allow visitors to test demo versions of a range of systems, plus perhaps the most impressive feature: a mock-up of a remote-control ship operations centre, complete with a wraparound screen wall and captain’s chair.
The space is essentially dedicated to Rolls-Royce’s intelligent awareness (IA) solution. The Naval Architect previewed an early version of the technology in March 2017, after it was tested for six months on board Finferries’ Stella. IA has since been refined and developed into a commercial product, which enables operators to take the first step towards remote operation by enhancing situational awareness of vessel surroundings. It uses a suite of sensors developed by Rolls-Royce: an antenna, camera unit, radar, LIDAR, and PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) camera. The real-time data collected from these sensors is processed by the system’s central unit and fed into the user interface unit. It can also be transmitted, via the cloud, to shore-side offices.
The touch-screen user interface unit visualises the sensor data across four different modes, which can be switched between instantaneously. In virtual reality 2D, the vessel follows its course through a top-down virtual copy of its environment. Other vessels in the ship’s vicinity are visible, overlaid with their AIS (automatic identification system) signatures detailing their speed, course, and position. Navigational markers and shore-based landmarks are also visible. Potential hazards not transmitting an AIS signal, including small craft like kayaks and fishing boats, and environmental hazards such as logs, are also picked up by the sensors and flagged to crew to identify. Through a process of machine learning, the system builds up knowledge of such hazards. The interface also generates red ‘no-go zones’ that the vessel cannot enter due to their shallow depth or presence of underwater hazards.
Virtual reality 3D is much the same, albeit with a more dynamic 3D view that can be rotated and zoomed by the user. Precision mode is designed for operations in particularly restricted or busy environments, and displays more detailed information about the vessel’s proximity to other craft and hazards, aiding crew with procedures such as mooring. The most advanced mode is augmented reality, which displays a ‘real’ video view of the vessel’s surroundings, overlaid with AIS data. Again, crew can adjust their view by zooming and rotating, improving their situational awareness beyond the human eye.
IA is said to have a number of benefits, including improving short- and medium-range object detection (up to 8nm), providing better visibility in fog and stormy weather, and enhancing crews’ shared situational awareness. The ability to transmit data to shore also gives fleet managers an insight into vessel operation in real time, with associated benefits for safety. As all data is stored in the cloud, too, it can be referred to in the event of an accident, or used for training purposes.
While IA is now commercially available, Rolls-Royce continues to carry out testing to improve the system, completing test trials on Stena Line’s Stena Jutlandica and a Japanese coastal Ferry Sunflower vessel, owned by Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL). Extra features Rolls-Royce is researching include weather, audio and underwater awareness modules, plus haptic feedback, to make the experience as realistic as possible for users. Ultimately, this advanced version of the IA system will be incorporated into a shore-based remote operations centre, where it will provide captain and crew with awareness on par with – or better than – what they would traditionally have from a ship bridge. The system may ultimately enable ideas such as Rolls-Royce’s modular smart-shipping concept, in which a containerised version of the bridge is located below deck.
To achieve truly remote and eventually autonomous shipping, IA must be paired in the remote operations centre with an autonomous navigation system. This technology will arguably have the greatest impact on vessel operation – eventually removing this requirement from crew entirely – and ship design.
Up to now, Rolls-Royce have demonstrated a remotely controlled 28m commercial tug, Svitzer Hermod, which was taken through a number of manoeuvres in Copenhagen harbour by a captain stationed in Svitzer’s headquarters. The company have also developed an automatic fjord-crossing system in partnership with Fjord1 ferries (see Equipment News, p14). Controlling the vessels’ acceleration, deceleration, and route, the system optimises their repetitive operation profile, leading to energy and cost savings.
However, a commercially viable autonomous navigation system is still in development, and is likely to only be viable initially for smaller vessels such as OSVs and tugs. In order to be incorporated into larger, ocean-going commercial vessels, Rolls-Royce must first wrangle with the current lack of regulation, and consider the legalities of such a technology. In aid of this, the company is due to present their research on autonomous operation this May at MSC 99. Rolls-Royce is also working with flag states and class societies with the hope of speeding up approval once their technology becomes available.
Cyber security is a priority too, with Rolls-Royce claiming that it designs its autonomous systems to be ‘inherently secure’. It is also attempting to generate an industry-standard ‘autonomous framework’, detailing levels of autonomy that allow vessels using autonomous systems to be more easily classified and evaluated from a safety perspective. As Juha Rokka, VP engineering in Ship Intelligence, explains: “We have our own autonomy framework. We are mapping out products and solutions to that framework, which gives you the rigour you need from a safety perspective when applying autonomy to your designs.”
The business of autonomy
The ramifications of remote – and particularly autonomous – operation for ship design and shipping’s business model are considerable. Freed from the necessity to install non-value adding systems for crew, including A/C, a galley, life-saving equipment, living quarters, and a bridge, a vessel can be intensely simplified and tailored to maximise energy efficiency as well as cargo capacity. Rolls-Royce predicts that average savings of US$5million can be achieved when comparing an autonomous bulker design to existing bulkers. In stark contrast to today’s unique newbuildings, autonomous shipping also opens up the possibility of standardised system (and even vessel) design, as is practised in the aviation industry.
This has huge implications for the current shipping business model. For Oskar Levander, SVP of concepts & innovation, it means ‘low cost smart shipping’, where leasing schemes replace brokering and a digital marketplace dominates, turning shipping into an “Uber of the sea.” In this marketplace, cost will be the main driver for cargo owners, with low rates made possible by highly efficient, standardised vessels operating on point-to-point routes. “Shipping will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last 50, and it’s all driven by digitilisation,” Levander claims. “We will see new business models. This change will comprehend the entire maritime market.”
It’s difficult not to be swept up in Rolls-Royce’s enthusiasm about remote and autonomous shipping, particularly given its ambitious timeline. As always in the maritime industry, however, innovators only have so much control: the fate of their technology will ultimately be decided by a plethora of different actors, including the IMO, IACS, and shipowners and operators themselves.
As we wait for the picture to become clearer (not least surrounding Rolls-Royce Marine’s own future), it is worth stopping for a minute to consider: 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago, could we possibly have imagined that unmanned ships – something out of science fiction – might, in fact, become a reality?