The Coming of Autonomous Maritime Transport Vessels

By Defense.Info

Rolls-Royce Marine has established a research center in Finland to develop autonomous maritime transport vessels.

In a Rolls-Royce press release earlier this year, the company announced its new research facility established in Finland.

Rolls-Royce has opened a state-of-the-art research facility in Turku, Finland, to develop the technologies Rolls-Royce and its partners require to shape the future of an increasingly more autonomous global shipping industry.

The new Research & Development Centre for Autonomous Ships includes a Remote and Autonomous Experience Space aimed at showcasing the autonomous ship technologies Rolls-Royce has already introduced as well as those in the development stage.

Commenting on how the Rolls-Royce R&D centre further strengthens Finland’s commitment to developing autonomous transport, Finnish Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner, said: “There is great global interest in autonomous vehicles and vessels as a future means of transport. The opening of the Rolls-Royce Research & Development Centre for Autonomous Ships here in Turku, a maritime city with a history of technological innovation, will help achieve our goal of digitalising the country’s transport sector.”

The new R&D Centre enables Rolls-Royce and its partners to carry out projects focussed on autonomous navigation, the development of land-based control centres, and the use of artificial intelligence in future remote and autonomous shipping operations.

Speaking at the official opening on 25 January 2018, Rolls-Royce President Marine Mikael Makinen said: “I’m proud to say that the R&D centre is now up and running and that all stakeholders, partners and customers will be able see here what a remote controlled and autonomous maritime future could look like, and work with us to shape the future. The experience space that is part of the centre here in Turku, and a similar one we have in our Technology Centre in Norway, is aimed at demonstrating to our customers the very tangible benefits of what is often considered an intangible technology.”

The Experience Space includes several interactive tables on which Rolls-Royce can showcase existing and future technologies while aiding the development and introduction of new rules and standards for autonomous shipping.

“The centre allows us to more accurately communicate our capabilities, what we have available today and what will be available tomorrow,” said Karno Tenovuo, Rolls-Royce Senior Vice President, Ship Intelligence. “It will completely focus on the development of solutions capable of smoothing the maritime industry’s transition to the digital age. An autonomous maritime ecosystem will open up unprecedented opportunities.”

Following the centre’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony, partners and guests were invited to an interactive symposium on autonomous ships at Turku’s Joki Visitor and Information Centre. Among the guests were Minister Anne Berner; ‎Director General of ‎the Ministry of Employment and Economy, Ilona Lundström; the Mayor of Turku, Minna Arve; and the Director General of Business Finland, Pekka Soini.

It is now exactly six years to the day that Rolls-Royce launched its first-ever autonomous ship development project UXUS (User Experience for Complex Systems), and in acknowledgement of the achievements made to date, Clarkson Research President Dr Martin Stopford gave a keynote speech on Smart Shipping. This was followed by presentations from Google’s Massimo Mascaro, Finferries’ Mats Rosin, One Sea’s Päivi Haikkola, Rolls-Royce’s Oskar Levander and the Finnish Transport Safety Agency’s Tuomas Routa.


The Finns have provided money for the project as announced in 2015.

Rolls-Royce is to lead a new €6.6 million ($7.3 million) project that could pave the way for autonomous ships. The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative will produce the specification and preliminary designs for the next generation of advanced ship solutions.

The project is funded by Tekes (Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation) and will bring together universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification societies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors which need to be addressed to make autonomous ships a reality.

The project will run until the end of 2017 and will pave the way for solutions – designed to validate the project’s research. The project will combine the expertise of some of Finland’s top academic researchers from Tampere University of Technology; VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd; Åbo Akademi University; Aalto University; the University of Turku; and leading members of the maritime cluster including Rolls-Royce, NAPA, Deltamarin, DNV GL and Inmarsat.

Rauli Hulkkonen, Tekes, Chief Advisor, said: “This project is a fantastic opportunity to establish the Finnish maritime cluster as the world leader in maritime remote control technology.”

Esa Jokioinen, Rolls-Royce, head of Blue Ocean Team, said: “Rolls-Royce has extensive experience of successfully coordinating multi-disciplinary teams developing complex technologies. We bring a world leading range of capabilities in the marine market to the project including vessel design, the integration of complex systems and the supply and support of power and propulsion equipment. We are excited to be taking the first concrete steps towards making remote controlled and autonomous ship applications a reality.”

The wide ranging project will look at research carried out to date before exploring the business case for autonomous applications, the safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships, the legal and regulatory implications and the existence and readiness of a supplier network able to deliver commercially applicable products in the short to medium term. 

The technological work stream, which will be led by Rolls-Royce, will encompass the implications of  remote control and autonomy of ships for propulsion, deck machinery and automation and control, using, where possible, established technology for rapid commercialization.

The Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean team is responsible for research and development of future maritime technologies and focuses on disruptive game-changing innovations. By combining new technologies with new approaches to ship design and system integration, the team aims to reduce operational costs, minimize emissions and enhance the earning capability of vessels. The team has developed a range of autonomous ship concepts as well as innovative designs for various ship types.

In addition, Kongsberg has partnered with Yara to build and to deploy an autonomous cargo ship as well.

According to Kongsberg Marine, they are develop self-driving ship control systems for autonomous surface ships.

KONGSBERG is developing self-driving ship control systems for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships – MASS / unmanned ships. We are involved in a number of projects, that focus on integrated sensor technology, and automated collision avoidance. We are a key stakeholder in the world’s first official autonomous vehicles test bed, and we hold the worlds first contracts for commercial delivery of an autonomous vessels…..

We pioneered radar based collision avoidance, delivering our first system back in 1969. We were the first to deliver commercially available dynamic positioning systems some 40 years ago. As the largest ship simulator manufacturer, we possess the ability to simulate and test all aspects of ship behaviour, communication and control. KONGSBERG have been and is involved in many activities needed to bring about the coming of autonomous ships.

For the more than 15 years we have worked to make our systems seamlessly integrate to provide THE FULL PICTURE. This has giving operators of our systems better overview and safer sailing. Since we manufacture very many of the systems required for autonomous operation ourselves, this strategy is now very useful in providing autonomous ship control systems; our systems already communicate with each other and share information.

Bringing about a control system for autonomous ships is a complicated task. KONGSBERG can draw on 20 years of experience in providing autonomous underwater vehicles (about 600 systems delivered), and more than 50 years experience from a variety of missile programs. Both areas utilise advanced sensor fusion and control algorithms to create a detailed 3D map of the operational area to secure safe autonomous operation.

Our Autonomy Controller provides autonomous operation for most vessel that has an electrical interface to the engine and steering systems. For safe operations, the systems collision avoidance capability ensures that the vehicle avoids obstacles in the sea detected by its proximity sensors…..

Their partnership with Yara is focused on delivering a fully electric and autonomous container ship.

The vessel “YARA Birkeland” will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions. Operation is planned to start in the latter half of 2018, shipping products from YARA’s Porsgrunn production plant to Brevik and Larvik in Norway.

Named “YARA Birkeland” after YARA’s founder, the famous scientist and innovator Kristian Birkeland, the vessel will be the world’s first fully electric container feeder. YARA’s new vessel will reduce NOx and CO2 emissions and improve road safety by removing up to 40,000 truck journeys in populated urban areas.

YARA Birkeland will initially operate as a manned vessel, moving to remote operation in 2019 and expected to be capable of performing fully autonomous operations from 2020. The new zero-emission vessel will be a game-changer for global maritime transport contributing to meet the UN sustainability goals.

An overview on the emergence of autonomous ships was provided earlier this year in an article by Jon Walker published on May 29, 2018.

Below we’ll look at current projects and executive statements of major autonomous shipping firms, and compare their timelines for autonomous shipping adoption:

1) Rolls-Royce Marine – Short Runs by 2020, Ocean Going by 2025

Rolls-Royce leads the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA)  which is a €6.6 million project funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation to bring together ship designers, equipment makers, and universities to examine the future of autonomous ships.

According to the white paper produce by Rolls-Royce for the AAWA, “the technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist.” The necessary sensors, the communication equipment, the programming, etc. is all currently achievable.

The challenge is making the technology reliable and cost effective. Given the important safety concerns and financial investments involved in a single cargo ship, the technology will need extensive testing before being deployed.

The white paper also highlights that there are big legal, regulatory, and insurance issues. Even if the technology is perfected, companies aren’t going to use remote and autonomous ships unless countries change their laws to allow them to operate.

Despite some potential issues, Rolls-Royce is optimistic about the future of the technology. Oskar Levander, Vice President of Innovation-Marine has no doubt that autonomous ships will eventually transform the industry and claims that, “We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”

Levander believes autonomous ships will start as small vessels that operate in confined areas with a specific route, like a basic ferry. For legal and technical reasons, a well-defined, continuous back-and-forward run within a single country is where the first commercial applications of the technology will be used. For example, Rolls-Royce and Svitzer early this year demonstrated the first remote operation of a commercial vessel. It was a tug in Copenhagen harbour, Denmark controlled by a captain located on shore in a new state of the art control center.

This is an aspect of the shipping industry that should make it easier to steadily roll out remote and autonomous technology. Ship builders don’t need to first figure out how to make remote and autonomous ships operate under all possible conditions before they can start deploying them. There are plenty of shipping needs that only require a vessel to operate under very specific and limited conditions and still be economically viable.

Levander thinks the first remote controlled ocean-going vessel will emerge around 2025 and quickly become commonplace by 2030.

2) Kongsberg and Yara – 2020

Yara provides a perfect example of how we will see the technology most used in the very near future. Yara and Kongsberg plans to deploy the first autonomous and fully electric cargo ship in 2018. The vessel – christened YARA Birkeland – will start as a manned ship in 2018. The plan is to test the new vessel and slowly transfer more and more responsibility to the AI system. Their goal is to have remote operation in 2019 and basically fully autonomous operations by 2020.

Since the YARA Birkeland will only travel a short, well-defined route from a facility in Brevik to a facility Larvik and back, it will simplify the task of preparing this one ship for autonomous operation. This is exactly the type of operation where the early autonomous ships will be put to use.

3) Japanese Consortium – 2025

Japan’s most important ship building companies are betting on their country’s technological expertise to improve their current world standing.

At the beginning of this year, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism announced a joint project between Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co. to develop autonomous ships. The research consortium is bringing together companies, government agencies, and universities to create a technological concept for autonomous vessels.

The R&D effort is expected to cost hundreds of millions. The goal is shared expertise among several Japanese shipping companies to have autonomous ships by 2025.

We might imagine that autonomous ship adoption will be a function of a country’s budget, and of the importance of ocean transport to it’s economy. Japan and the UK seem to be likely adopters if this this holds…..

Rolls-Royce and pretty much the entire Japanese shipping industry are investing millions into autonomous ship research and development. They feel confident in this bet because the actual technology to make such systems work effectively exists; the challenge now is refining it to produce the reliability and effectiveness to make it economically viable and safe enough to get the approval of regulators.

Many industry insiders expect the process to start in just the next few years, with remote and autonomous ships on short, defined routes by the end of the decade. They expect the technology to steadily improve until cargo ships are traveling the open ocean without crews (possibly between 2020 and 2025, based on today’s claims and projections). Once the technology reaches maturity, some companies believe the cost savings will cause it to be adopted rather quickly on a broad scale.

This drive is not just to reduce labor costs and human error but to allow a real transformation in the industry. Without humans being physically aboard, ship design is open to new possibilities to increase efficiency – creating vessels purpose-built for shipping, without the decks, bathrooms, kitchens, and sleeping quarters required on today’s vessels.

Long term, the implications extend well beyond the shipping industry. Bringing down the cost of transportation would not only reduce operating expenses for a whole range of industries but could create a variety of new market possibilities. Low value items that were not worth shipping before could become profitable.

Research suggests that containerization technology, which dramatically reduced shipping cost, was a main driver of globalization. Products with relatively low profit margins (possibly clothing, some types of food, and more) will enter far-away markets, bringing about heightened competition in sectors that previously had little.

It will likely be a decade before the impact is felt broadly, even if the technology develops at a rate some expect. Knowing if and when the technology will reach maturity should be fairly easy to follow and prepare for. Since the technology is predicted to soon roll out for simple routes and steadily expand to longer and more complicated routes, it should be easy in the next few years to gauge whether these predictions are on track.

The companies outside the shipbuilding industry which should be paying close attention in the short term are any which are constantly moving a modest amount of cargo a relatively short distance across or near waterways. Tugboats, ferries, and barges are were the first uses of remote and autonomous ships are planned – and these are likely to be the applications where autonomous ships will add real value in just the next few years.

The featured graphic shows an artist’s depiction of the Yara Birkeland.