By David Szondy
June 22, 2016 - In 2014, Rolls-Royce unveiled its vision of the robotic cargo ship of the future that it believes will become a reality by 2020. This week at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016 in Amsterdam, the Rolls-Royce-led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative (AAWA) presented a white paper outlining what such autonomous vessels might be like and what hurdles stand between them and the open sea.
According to Rolls-Royce, the ships of the future will have as much in common with the ships of today as the Santa Maria has with HMS Queen Elizabeth. Without human crews, autonomous ships would operate under computer control aided by shore operators. The giant cargo vessels would look like surfaced whales with smooth decks (if they have decks) and no superstructures. They would also be eerily quiet as they glide along the sea lanes using eco-friendly engines.
How to get to this tomorrow is the topic of the AAWA white paper (PDF) developed by Rolls-Royce in conjunction with a consortium of partners, including Finferries, ESL Shipping, Tampere University of Technology, and Brighthouse Intelligence. Part of a €6.6 million (US$7.48 million) project that runs through 2017, it identifies the areas that need to be addressed and the problems that will need to be solved to create such ships, the business case for them, and how they might be integrated into conventional shipping.
One key point of the white paper is that there is no one-size-fits all solution to making an autonomous ship and nobody is going to just slap a black box on the bridge of an existing ship and hit the Go button. Such ships will appear gradually as the technology develops and, like many cloud-based systems, autonomous ships will need time to create a large database to draw from as many types of ships for many missions are built.
An element that all of these ships will have in common, according to the paper, is that they will be computer controlled with arrays of sensors that will include cameras, infrared systems, radar, lidar, microphones, sonar, and GPS. However, the tricky bit will be figuring out how to deal with all the bandwidth these require and whether they can operate in real time.
This is just one problem that would need to be solved, but AAWA says that the advantages of such ships would be potentially immense. Ships could be built without the need for crew quarters, deckhouse, lifeboats, or even decks. They would be much cheaper to build and operate and would carry more cargo. Ship design would be more flexible, human errors would be reduced, and the new technologies would provide new, disruptive business opportunities similar to those of Uber and Spotify in their fields.(more…)