Marine boat traffic has grown threefold in the past 100 years. As the seas become more crowded the demand for autonomous solutions could not be more relevant from a greater profits to increased safety. Allianz Insurance reported that over 75% of all boating accidents are the fault of human error, often the result of fatigue. Rolls-Royce, a leading manufacturer of automobiles, aerospace engines and maritime solutions estimates that autonomous and remote-controlled vessels on open waters could one day rival their terrestrial counterparts on the speed of adoption and utility.


“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry” ssaid Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce’s marine division, in a white paper published by the company. “As disruptive as the smartphone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.”

While in the past we have discussed many upstarts in the autonomous marine space, Rolls-Royce is now leading the industry with its global research project, the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA), to deliver fully autonomous shipping vessels by the end of the decade. The AAWA endeavor draws together the European Union’s MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks); DNV GL, and China’s Maritime Safety Administration & Wuhan University of Technology. Each national group is bringing its own expertise to the table to assess the varied requirements to bring fully autonomous shipping to a commercial reality, including: software (navigation, collision avoidance, off-board communications), certifications (legal, liability & insurance) and societal changes (labor & business). A big driver of the research is external pressure from the shipping industry, including threats from pirates, increased cargo demands, and a shrinking skilled workforce.

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Rolls-Royce Vice President of Marine Innovation Oskar Levander could not be more adamant about his optimism for the project, “this is happening. It’s not if, it’s when.” He explained, “The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships already exist. 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 behavior of the complete communication system to be explored. We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

Levander’s team is working on integrating a complete situational-awareness system that combines sensors that are being installed in self-driving cars in Detroit and Silicon Valley, such as infrared cameras, LIDAR and other radar components. The AAWA group is exploring two command options for utilizing the sensor data sets: 1) a remote-operations center led by a human captain; and/or 2) onboard computer/deep learning network. In either case, the human remote commander or its autonomous-navigation system would tap into other situational inputs from satellites, weather reports, radio broadcasts and other ship-to-ship reports. The idea of computer aided systems is not new, crews have been using electronic aids as part of their daily activities for decades. Already advanced systems plot out routes, assist with decisions making, and monitor the ship’s machinery to ensure critical functions are running at optimal performance.

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Unlike terrestrial vehicles, ocean communications have been hampered by inconsistent broadband communications on the water. However, in August 2015,  Inmarsat launched its third Global Xpress satellite to provide broadband data almost anywhere in the world. This was a game changer for the concept of “uncrewed” ships navigating the seas. It also means that the risk from cyber-criminals has now risen to a new threat level.

Jay McFadden, Rolls-Royce senior vice president, admits that there are still issues to solve. “We don’t yet have a perfect way of handling every circumstance.”

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While Rolls-Royce has been making news in the industry it has yet to release a fully autonomous vessel. The closest it has come is its “Unified Bridge” technology that was showcased in August 2014 aboard the Stril Luna (above). Since then, Rolls-Royce Unified Bridge system has been incorporated into tugboats, mega yachts, polar research vessels, and new cruise ships. While there are many competing standards almost everyone agrees that “robot ghost ships” will need to involve a consortium of universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, classification societies, and governments.

Already, the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration have signed an agreement to permit sea trials of autonomous boats in the Trondheim Fjord. Meanwhile in Finland, an association called Finnish Marine Industries, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, and Tekes (the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation) have joined Rolls-Royce and other companies to develop and explore autonomous marine transport in the Baltic Sea. Rolls-Royce plans to launch its first fully autonomous ship within the next three years, and estimates that it will be commonplace on the high-seas by 2015.


In related news, Ford Motor Co. acquired a 50% ownership stake in artificial-intelligence startup Argo AI for $1 billion to bolster its self-driving car technology arsenal last week. The question in the maritime industry is when will these types of investments hit the waves. To explore this issue and the implications it could have within the greater society, come to our next #RobotLabNYC Event, The Societal Impact of Robotics, on March 2nd at 6pm.