Impression of an autonomous, remote-controlled vessel © Rolls-Royce
Impression of an autonomous, remote-controlled vessel © Rolls-Royce

'Drone' sea vessels to revolutionise shipping

Smart ships, able to independently plan and sail part or all of their voyages, will be “as disruptive as the smart phone”, a report has claimed.

In a white paper published to coincide with the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium 2016, the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) said all the technologies needed to make an autonomous ship already exist.

AAWA is a Rolls-Royce-led partnership including manufacturers, ship designers and universities.

It said autonomous ships could be in commercial use by the end of the decade.

The report predicted remote human operators in a virtual bridge could give ships different levels of autonomy depending on the situation, from being completely autonomous out at sea to manually controlled in harbour, or a mixture of the two.

Removing humans and the amenities they need from ships will save weight and space and ultimately reduce shipping costs.

The digitalisation of the shipping industry would also allow new companies to enter the shipping market and “take over large shares of the business in the same way as Uber, Spotify and Airbnb have done in other industry sectors”.

“The increased intelligence that comes along with autonomous shipping is likely to bring in new actors to the field… as well as bring in a different philosophy in terms of maintenance and service functions,” the report said.

With autonomous ships expected to produce a large amount of accurate real time data, shipping companies will not only “be able to identify the best combination of route, cargo, maintenance schedule and fuel price”, but also be able to pool resources and easily lease unused assets.

Technology companies with the skills needed to make autonomous or remotely operated vessels work and companies who can process and operationalise data collected from these vessels will have a disruptive affect on the industry, the report predicts.

“Holding a key position in the technology platform for the new dominant logic of autonomous shipping is crucial for competitive advantage,” the report said.

AAWA is already testing sensor arrays on a vessel operated by FinFerries.

“It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist,” said Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce VP of marine innovation. 

“We will see a remote controlled sip in commercial use by the end of the decade,” he added.

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