The Online Boating and Maritime Exhibition

#8 - The Age of Autonomous Vessels

Rolls-Royce’s Vision of Autonomous Vessels

Remote controlled autonomous ship concept (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

In collaboration with Finnish universities and global maritime companies, Rolls-Royce Marine has completed phase I of its Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative to make autonomous shipping a reality. We talked to Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation–marine, Oskar Levander.


NauticExpo e-mag: Does the technology already exist for such a project?

Oskar Levander: The technologies needed to make remotely-operated and autonomous ships a reality exist. The sensor technology needed is sound and the algorithms needed for robust decision support systems—a vessel’s “virtual captain”—are not far away. The challenge is to find the optimum way to combine them cost-effectively. A series of sensor array tests is under way in Finland.

NE e-mag: Won’t you need to discuss this with the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

Oskar Levander: For such shipping to become a reality we need efforts at all regulatory levels. The legal challenges of constructing and operating a demonstration vessel at a national level need to be explored, while simultaneously considering appropriate rule changes at IMO.

Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable.

NE e-mag: Would this extend to liability?

Oskar Levander: Liability questions for autonomous ships are subject to national variations, but generally it seems there’s a less urgent need for regulatory change here.

NE e-mag: Isn’t standardization also a challenge?

Oskar Levander: The standardization of ship systems, the collection and analysis of significant quantities of operating data and the development of enhanced analytic capabilities will also be crucial [because they provide] a massive set of historic statistical data from which robust trends can be drawn and valid predictions of ship reliability made. Significantly more standardized and reliable ships will be essential if they are to operate at sea for several weeks without engineers aboard.

Containerised modules can be reconfigured during port visits (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Containerised modules can be reconfigured during port visits (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: How about safety and cybersecurity?

Oskar Levander: Remote-controlled and autonomous ships will obviously need to be at least as safe as existing vessels. And in order to secure regulatory approval, the support of ship owners, operators and seafarers, as well as public acceptance, will be needed.

Cybersecurity will be critical. We at Rolls-Royce are confident that it can be achieved. And that’s not just blind optimism. Rolls-Royce has nearly 20 years’ experience in its aero services business, which securely streams sensitive data from over 10,500 aircraft engines. The processes and expertise required to secure remote and autonomous ships systems are similar. It’s about understanding the context that the system will be used in and the risks that new technologies introduce.

Land-based control centre (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Land-based control centre (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: What would happen in the event of a pirate or terrorist attack?

Oskar Levander: Crewless ships could be built so they are very difficult to board. Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable. Indeed, computers could immobilize the ship, or have it steam in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it.

Recapture would also be easier, because there would be no crew held hostage. And without a captured crew to ransom, a piracy target is significantly less valuable. Rolls-Royce’s confidence in unmanned shipping in the relatively short term is not universally accepted, however.

Remote controlled autonomous ship concept (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

Crewless ship (Courtesy of Rolls-Royce)

NE e-mag: Is autonomy suitable for all classes of ships?

Oskar Levander: Unlikely. Some could be completely crewless and look radically different from current vessels. Others will be a blend of autonomy and remote control. And some, such as cruise ships, are always likely to need crew.

By 2025 we hope to have a remotely-operated and crewless high-seas vessel.

Tugs and road ferries are likely to be among the first sectors where we will see commercial use of remote-controlled and autonomous vessels. They will most likely fall under individual flag states’ control, which have the capacity to make special dispensations for their operation.

At Rolls-Royce, we envisage a remotely-operated vessel in local waters as the first stage and in operation by 2020. By 2025 we hope to have a remotely-operated and crewless high-seas vessel. Five years after that we expect unmanned ocean-going vessels to be a common sight globally.


At the 2017 SMART4SEA Conference in Athens at the end of January, Frank Coles, CEO of global e-navigation company Transas, expressed his scepticism of autonomous ship projects. “Before we can consider an unmanned ship, we need to resolve key elements. We need a workable ecosystem, connectivity and acceptable cybersecurity. It’s my proposition that none of these exist today”.

Coles explained his views in depth, making the point that, “Connectivity is critical and we are nowhere near the required level of capability. While there is increased satellite communications capacity, it’s not at the levels needed for remote maritime operations.”

He also believes that cybersecurity is a major concern. “If you install any designated piece of bridge equipment, it needs to comply with a significant list of regulations and be Class certified. Today’s ship-to-shore communications used for operations and being touted for unmanned ships, have no such regulations.”

“It’s like allowing an office network to operate without any controls over what’s installed on the computers. While many may not like a closed system like Inmarsat, maybe it’s the best option for securing and setting secure connectivity standards.”

“Without it, we will likely not see a safe unmanned ship.”

Watch the impressive Rolls-Royce’s vision of that revolution:


About the Author

Formerly editor-in-chief of IHS Maritime, Tony Slinn is an independent maritime journalist.

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