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Operating under the Danish flag, the 461-ton Svitzer Hermod tug is a marine-autonomy pioneer. (Rolls-Royce)

Rolls-Royce sets sail with autonomous ship technology

Autonomous ship ahoy! The remote-control operation of a commercial marine vessel in 2017 is the prelude to a self-sailing boat’s debut in the 2020 timeframe.

“When we first started talking about remote-controlled and autonomously-driven commercial vessels, there were a lot of skeptical people. Now this is the biggest topic in the marine industry,” Oskar Levander, Senior Vice President of Concepts & Innovation, Digital & Systems for Rolls-Royce’s Marine Business, said in a recent interview with SAE Media.

Rolls-Royce’s collaboration with global towage operator Svitzer resulted in a remotely-operated commercial vessel executing complex maneuvers in Denmark’s Copenhagen harbor in June 2017. The big tug’s captain piloted the vessel from a Remote Operating Center (ROC) set up at Svitzer’s headquarters. The demonstration was considered a world-first in the marine industry.

Powered by two Rolls-Royce marine diesels, each rated at 200 kW at 1800 rpm, the 28 m (91.8-ft)-long Svitzer Hermod tug is equipped with infrared cameras, lidar and other sensors as well as a Rolls-Royce Dynamic Positioning System.

“The captain can maneuver the vessel, moor the vessel, dock the vessel and perform some other tasks, like pushing as a tug, from a ROC,” Levander explained. “We have continued to work on the same tug to make it autonomous-capable.”

Technologies being used by Rolls-Royce Marine for its remote-controlled and autonomous programs are similar to automotive industry deployments. “There are synergies in some technical areas, but some of our challenges are different,” he said, “We need a long-range lidar, ideally we would like to see a kilometer away. Right now, we can see more than 500 meters.”

Rather than favor an all-autonomous/all-the-time future for vessels, Levander said that the best approach is a mix. “Even if you have a fully autonomous vessel, you want to have that remote capability to be able to step in and take over if something happens,” he said.

Vessels could operate in a fashion that’s similar to that of commercial aircraft, in which the auto-pilot is not engaged during take offs and landings. “To make everything autonomous would take a lot of work,” he noted, “so we say it’s better to try to do 95 percent autonomous and still keep the human-in-the-loop for things that are the hardest to predict.” Harbors and other high traffic areas are zones prone to unpredictability, he asserted.

One of the biggest challenges in developing autonomous technology for the maritime industry is attaining and maintaining consistently high levels of reliability. “We need to ensure that a ship crossing an ocean will function for weeks without any human intervention,” he said. System standardization is especially vital.

Of course, artificial intelligence will play a major role on sea as it will on land. “We are partnering with Google to use their machine learning to identify the objects the ship has around it,” he said.

With a target of deploying an autonomously-driven vessel in the 2020 timeframe, Rolls-Royce has committed substantial resources. “For our marine business, the ship intelligence area is where we are putting most of the R&D money today. We truly believe this will be the next big thing,” Levander said.

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