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Rolls-Royce and Google partner on autonomous ships

Rolls-Royce revealed its plans for a 60m autonomous naval vessel last month.

Rolls-Royce has partnered with Google to help develop software for their autonomous ships. Google’s Cloud Machine Learning Engine will train Rolls-Royce’s sensors to automatically detect, identify, and track objects on the surface of the ocean. ‘Machine learning’ refers to a set of tools that analyzes existing data sets and recognizes patterns in order to train an artificially intelligent program to contextualize new data and make predictions. Rolls-Royce believes the technology will make vessels safer and more efficient because artificially intelligent sensor networks will be able to process much more information than a human crew member.

The collaboration with Google is only the latest move by Rolls-Royce’s Ship Intelligence division, which started in 2005 with a data logging operation on the Solstad Farstad Far Seeker. Over the past decade, the Ship Intelligence project has created systems to remotely manage equipment health and energy use on ships and built an operations center in Ålesund, Norway. 

In June, Rolls-Royce demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel in Copenhagen harbor. The Svitzer Hermod, a 28m long tug built in 2016 in Turkey, was equipped with Rolls-Royce’s Dynamic Positioning System as well as Rolls-Royce diesel engines. The ship’s captain, stationed at his remote base at the Svitzer headquarters, undocked the Svitzer Hermod from the quay in Copenhagen, turned 360°, piloted to the Svitzer HQ, and docked it again.

Then in September, Rolls-Royce revealed its plans for a 60m, 700 ton autonomous naval vessel capable of operating beyond the horizon for over 100 days with a range of 3,500 nautical miles. The ship is designed to achieve speeds of over 25 knots with its electric propulsion system, is equipped with photovoltaic panels to generate power when it’s on standby, and has a battery system capable of storing 3000 kWh. Rolls-Royce intends the ship to deploy drones while performing patrol, surveillance, minesweeping, and fleet screening duties.

Finally, Rolls-Royce has envisioned an entirely new workspace that will house autonomous ship command and control functions on shore. Last year the company released a short film set in a “future shore control center” that follows some resourceful Finns as they use interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms, and surveillance drones to figure out what to do when one of their ships, RR-9835, loses contact. The future shore control center has a science fiction feel reminiscent of Star Trek—check it out below.

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John Paul Hampstead

John Paul conducts research on multimodal freight markets and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. Prior to building a research team at FreightWaves, JP spent two years on the editorial side covering trucking markets, freight brokerage, and M&A.