Rolls-Royce launches project to design unmanned ships

Signal of change / Rolls-Royce launches project to design unmanned ships

By Juliette Aplin / 22 Jul 2015

The Rolls-Royce Blue Ocean team has announced a new collaborative research project looking to produce the designs and operating systems needed to make the concept of unmanned or remote controlled ships a reality.

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative will bring together academics, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification bodies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory and technological factors to be considered before autonomous ships are able to set sail.

The project is expected to be completed in 2017, however some preliminary designs of the unmanned ships have already been published.

The team, led by Rolls Royce, will combine new technologies with alternative approaches to ship design and system integration. Its aim is to develop automated on-board decision systems, to be controlled by a remote operator from land-based control stations.

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative will build upon the European Commission funded Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) initiative. Both Rolls-Royce and MUNIN claim such unmanned shipping solutions expect to be will be more efficient, sustainable and safer than current shipping vessels.

Image Credit: Rolls-Royce / flickr

So what?

The shipping industry across Europe is facing a combination of challenges including increased transport volumes, growing ecological regulation and a shortage of employees willing to spend long stretches at sea. Automated shipping solutions therefore present opportunities to make the industry more attractive and sustainable in the following ways:

Firstly, automated decision making systems will improve the operational efficiency of ships, whilst also reducing the space and costs associated with accommodating a crew. With reduced need for heating, air conditioning, sewage systems and lifeboats, greater space for cargo is made available. This will enable ships to be redesigned, stripping out the bridge, handle rails and access points, creating a sleeker shape and making it much harder for pirates to attempt hijacking the ship. This not only increases capacity for freight, but also provides shipping companies with competitive advantages.

Secondly, greater monitoring of navigational information and the option of sailing at reduced speeds could allow for improved environmental performance of vessels.

Furthermore, by making routine tasks on-board fully automated, the remaining crew will only be responsible for carrying out the most technical navigational tasks, whilst remaining on-shore. As MUNIN points out, a shore-based operating system offers the possibility for the industry to become more ‘socially sustainable’ as the amount of time seafarers need to spend away from their families will be reduced.

Much of the technology needed to navigate ships remotely does already exist. However, as Ørnulf Rødseth, a researcher at the Norwegian Marine Technology Institute has commented, current maritime regulation such as the IMO’s Safety of Life at Sea convention states “all ships must be sufficiently and efficiently manned,” with the assumption that a crew will be on board. Therefore both Rolls-Royce and MUNIN will have to demonstrate that any automated technologies surpass the capabilities of a manned crew.

Some within the shipping industry, including Constantino Badissa, from, Grimaldi Lines have raised concerns regarding the vulnerability of these ships to piracy. However, as Oskar Levander, Head of Maritime Technology and Innovation for Rolls-Royce commented to The Guardian, “If you take the crew off, you have much less interest for the pirates because you don’t have hostages. Even if they do get on board, what are they going to do? They aren’t able to steer it. The captain (based on-shore) is the only one who can close down the ship”.

Whilst the impetus for hostage-taking may be reduced, automated ships will still be vulnerable to a different kind of piracy – that of cyber-hacking – which should not be underestimated.

Both MUNIN and Rolls-Royce have established that a captain will still be required to control the ship, albeit from an on-shore control centre. However, neither project have addressed the issue of job security and technological displacement of the shipping industry’s workforce. The shipping industry is already facing ‘an acute shortage’ of trained officers (Deloitte, 2011), and greater automation could deter future generations from joining the industry. Therefore clearer indications from the likes of Rolls-Royce and MUNIN are needed on the skills required to control automated ships to ensure the future workforce of the shipping industry is equipped with the relevant skills.


What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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