Research into Automated Ships Moving "Full Steam Ahead"

Nelson CabreraNews, Ocean FreightLeave a Comment

automated cargo ships rendering

Automation – these days, it’s the name of the game in business. Ever since ATMs first started replacing bank tellers, companies have been scrambling to cut costs and increase efficiency with robotic operators.

Rolls Royce logoLast year, we wrote about the impending automation wave in shipping as companies like Rolls Royce started researching autonomous technology. A lot has happened in the last 16 months, and ship manufacturers have been busy investigating the efficacy of unmanned cargo vessels. In fact, Rolls Royce is so confident in its ability to churn out autonomous ships that last week it unveiled a €6.6 million project ($7.3 million USD) entitled “The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative.”

Collaboration at its Best

With the lofty goal to produce unique designs for “the next generation of advanced ship solutions,” Rolls Royce recognizes that it cannot act alone. The forward-thinking company has partnered with the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (which is providing most of the financial backing), and is tapping into the expertise of some of Finland’s top thinkers.

team collaboration

Academic researchers from Tampere University of Technology, Aalto University, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the University of Turku, and Abo Akademi University are all lending their talents to the project. In addition, maritime big wigs from NAPA, Inmarsat, Deltamarin, and DNV GL are all stepping into the conversation with their own ideas for automated transport.

Innovation is the Motivation

Rolls Royce has had this challenge on its to-do list for years, and the organization hopes that the AAWAI project will help them sustain their reputation for innovation and technological foresight. And the collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of the endeavor should work in their favor; experts are already hard at work researching other applications of automation, contemplating the safety and security considerations, and building a legal and regulatory framework to govern drone-like vessels.

Not one to cut corners or ignore details, the initiative is looking to identify a reliable supplier network for applicable products and establish relevant technology that manufacturers can rapidly commercialize.

Of course, the primary task of the venture is still to determine the most technologically viable course of action. This is where Rolls Royce’s “Blue Ocean” team comes into play. These brainy engineers have one primary goal: to focus on “game-changing innovations.” The plan is to combine established technologies with new approaches that will reduce costs, increase revenue, promote safety, and make a minimal impact on the environment.

The Question is not “If?” but “When?”

A few short months ago we wrote about self-driving trucks that are already legal on certain U.S. roadways. It will be a few years before the vehicles require no on-board human supervision, but it’s clear that robots are leading the next technological revolution. The story on the seas is no different; it’s only a matter of time before vessels of all shapes and sizes are cutting down on manpower in favor of automated GPS systems, integrated sensors and motion detectors, responsive weather detectors, and long-range remote control capabilities. That being said, safety and regulatory concerns may be Rolls Royce’s biggest obstacle to come.

As Esa Jokioinen, head of the Rolls Royce Blue Ocean team, said, “Rolls-Royce has extensive experience of successfully coordinating multi-disciplinary teams developing complex technologies [and] we are excited to be taking the first concrete steps towards making remote controlled and autonomous ship applications a reality.” Rauli Hulkkonen, the chief advisor at the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, added that this collaboration is a “fantastic opportunity” to establish Finland as a leader in maritime operations.

To be sure, the Finnish consortium deserves our attention for its willingness to tackle such a bold project. And regardless of who paves the way to innovation, the logistics industry as a whole could potentially benefit from lower costs and more efficient service.

What do you think of automating the shipping industry? Are you concerned about safety and job loss, or do you see drone vessels as just one more example of the way technology is improving shipping? Let us know in the comments!

Nelson Cabrera
Nelson leads global business development efforts within ShipLilly and has been featured as a logistics expert in numerous publications, including SupplyChainBrain, The Bulletin Panama, Logistics Management, and the Miami Herald.

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