Rolls-Royce reckons robot cargo ships are the future of the seas

A million pirates yelled 'splice the mainbrace, me hearty!'

Container ship, photo via Dmitry Chulov Shutterstock
Modern container ship. Pic: Shutterstock

Comment Rolls-Royce and the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) believe the future of cargo transportation is autonomous – and they have published an 88 page white paper (PDF) to prove it.

The company outlined its vision of remote controlled cargo ships at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam last week, claiming unmanned vessels would be cheaper to operate and would have more space for cargo.

Speaking at the Symposium Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation – Marine, said: "This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist."

He continued: "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 behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored and we will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade."

The project also has the support of ship owners and operators. The tests of sensor arrays are being carried out aboard Finferries' 65-metre double ended ferry, the Stella, which operates between Korpo and Houtskär, while ESL Shipping Ltd is helping explore the implications of remote and autonomous ships for the short sea cargo sector.

If introduced in this timeframe, ships could beat cars to be the first autonomous vehicle to be rolled out on a significant scale.

The route to transform commercial shipping is not plain sailing, however, with the white paper warning that autonomous ships may be more vulnerable to piracy as inadequate security would potentially mean hackers could commandeer the freighters.

“In principle, anybody skilful and capable to attain access into the ICT system could take control of the ship and change its operation according to hackers’ objectives,” the white paper states.

“This could mean simply some disruptive actions or manoeuvres introduced for annoyance or demonstration, hijacking of the ship and cargo for ransom, but also powered groundings or collisions created on purpose to cause severe destruction.”

Rolls-Royce is not first to float the idea of autonomous ships, with the US Navy launching its first fully autonomous warship, dubbed the Sea Hunter, earlier this year in what is seen as a dramatic advancement as we head towards fully autonomous, hunter-killer weapons platforms – but unlike its USN counterpart, Rolls-Royce still plans for there to be a human in the loop – albeit someone in a control center thousands of miles away. ®

This column was originally published on The Futurist.




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