Autonomous ships and remote operation of vessels have come from vision to reality, commercial applications seem realistic today. Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce’s Director Engineering & Technology and Ship Intelligence offers insight into an autonomous shipping future
How and when did the research of autonomous shipping really start at Rolls-Royce?
Kevin Daffey: Our autonomous ship journey really started in 2014 with the unveiling or our futuristic oX Bridge concept, although you could say it goes as far back as the mid-2000s, when we introduced our first Dynamic Positioning system and, later, the ACON automation system. This was when we started including automation technologies into our offshore portfolio; it provided a kernel for the development of advanced positioning and control systems.
We also saw what was happening in the aerospace sector with engine health monitoring and felt we could adapt the concept and apply it to our engines and propulsion systems to play an important part in the maritime industry, especially in terms of operational performance, safety and maintenance. This is now at the core of our Marine »Power by the Hour« contracts.
Is the technology still an issue?
Daffey: Rolls-Royce has been at the vanguard of development in this area, producing systems capable of capturing data and accurately monitoring the health of equipment, particularly our Bergen engines, thrusters and deck machinery, where we now have a very mature data pattern. This is critical to the development of the autonomous ship so we can ensure highly reliable systems that don’t require »at sea« interventions. And while the concept is very much at the embryonic stage, the technology is there, especially now that the communications industry has developed the broadband capacity required to send, at a cost-effective rate, high volumes of data from ship to shore or shore to ship.
Certainly, in the last five years, development in sensor technology and satellite communications has advanced to such an extent that we now have that capability. Although we manage data transfer rates in a cost-effective way. For instance, during long ocean passages, high bandwidth video feeds are not required. However, in and around ports it’s easy now to set up a wireless or 4G connection, so we can traffic vast amounts of data captured from a voyage and harvest those insights.
So, the global fleet could go autonomous now?
Daffey: I would not like to suggest that every ship will be unmanned and autonomous, but I do see a future where certain ships types will become completely unmanned. Initially, there would be a broad progression, with more levels of automation being introduced to transfer some of the tasks from ship to shore-based ship operation centres.
For example, instead of every ship having a finely trained chief engineer onboard that’s got 20 years of experience, why don’t we tap into this experience and bring them shoreside, providing expertise and guidance to less well-trained equipment maintainers onboard, who would carry out any necessary interventions?
So, will professional seafarers still be needed in this future?
Daffey: Remote operation would still require the same knowledge and experience seafarers have and they will still need to use all the senses – sight, sound, smell, touch– which was something we became aware of during the testing of the world’s first remote controlled tug, »Svitzer Hermod«. During trials, we found that when the vessel’s thrusters engaged, the remotely located master had to wait for the tug’s motion to be seen on the video wall to confirm the thrust was maneuvering the tug. On ship, of course, you’d be able to hear the thrusters, feel the vibrations. This gives the Captain immediate feedback that his actions were going to cause an effect. So, to ensure shore-based operators still have that sensory understanding, we introduced a speaker into the remote control centre and created a deck that vibrates.
What if something breaks during the voyage?
Daffey: Today, ship maintenance is typically diagnostics, but with the level of sensors and data we have available allows us to be more prognostic; to see a problem beginning to take shape and act upon it before it manifests itself. What I envisage is greater use of machine learning technology, a branch of Artificial Intelligence, where we can use self-adapting algorithms to show us that a system or machine is working as it should. Anything outside normal running parameters immediately shows up.
What we are trying to do is create an engineering system onboard a vessel that is survivable for a complete voyage. You may have some maintenance interventions onboard by robot arms but when the vessel is alongside that’s when any repairs and maintenance will be carried out.
What will be the next steps in the development?
Daffey: We are learning a lot from other industries. The automotive sector is many years ahead of us as far as autonomous vehicles are concerned. The rail industry is also beginning to move across to autonomy. Our latest agreement is with the European Space Agency where we hope to learn how you design, build and operate a remotely controlled space vehicle for years without physical human intervention. And forward-thinking shipowners and operators will begin to see the competitive advantage in employing autonomous technology.
I really do think we’re going to see an acceleration of interest. Technology companies are beginning to see the maritime sector as providing a new outlet for their technologies. Our industry is quite fragmented. But in other industries, such as the telecoms IT, automotive, there is much more trans-industry integration, and this is a business model that will eventually filter across to the maritime industry.
You can see this happening now with cooperation agreements between companies like Maersk and Ali Baba; Rolls-Royce and Google. There will certainly be a bigger push from the owners of the goods and commodities looking to integrate the whole logistics chain to include greater aspects of maritime operations.
Interview: Felix Selzer