Rolls-Royce partners with tech company Intel to develop autonomous vessel technology

Intel announced a new partnership agreement with Rolls-Royce as part of the firm’s development objective to construct fully autonomous ships. The cargo being shipped by world commercial fleets amounted to over USD$827 billion, and the possibility to reduce crew costs through self-driving ships is increasingly enticing in the age of AI. The company has already made some developments with automated vessels after demonstrating a remotely operated commercial ship on waters off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Rolls-Royce, currently separated from the car brand of the same name, has been developing self-operating shipping technology for the good part of the past decade, and stated last year that it plans to launch its first unmanned ocean-bound level by 2025.

As an initial step towards that objective, it launched its Intelligent Awareness system for crewed ships in early 2018. The system consists of a network of cameras, LIDAR, and radar, all of which is directed by a central program. Through the use of machine vision algorithms, this program seeks out obstacles such as other ships and sends automated alerts to its crew.

The Intelligence system can spontaneously denote nearby ships, be they cruise ships, tankers, or tugs. It allows for better visibility in difficult weather conditions by combining its centralized data, which can be particularly useful when navigating through tight areas, such as docks.

Through its arrangement with Intel, Rolls-Royce will be able to use the engineering company’s 3D NAND solid-state drives to store data from this network. The stored data could amount to an entire terabyte a day, which could result in 30-40 terabytes in total data during a month-long voyage.

To process that data, the company will use Intel’s Xeon Scalable tech processors on ships and in designated datacenters. As the system’s tech capabilities develop overtime, it plans to assess Intel’s Optane SSDs and FPGAs for viable use, as well.

Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce’s director of ship intelligence, told The Verge:

“It’s basically the eyes and ears of the ship. “It’s about highlighting hazards in real time”.

According to Daffey, in this situation the ships would usually have its crew members stationed around ship with communication devices, informing the captain of possible endangerment. Through the IAS, these crew members can be equipped with digital feeds, which can be shared with dock personnel for increased safety.

“By implementing the LIDAR system, you get real-time measurements of how far the ship is from its berth,” said Daffey. “And if any other ship comes near, it sets off an alarm. “

In order to further increase vessel autonomy, it seems imperative to develop IAS-style technology. Engineers and shipping companies have been exploring the possibilities of “drone ships” and are constantly seeking out ways in which they can reduce the necessity of crew members or eliminate it entirely. Despite the challenges with these systems, most agree that the basic tech framework is now available for such capabilities. Rolls-Royce’s network of camera and sensors is a possible step in the right direction. If ships are to steer themselves, they will require reliable recognition of their surroundings.

Daffey says one of the biggest obstacles now is establishing an international legal system to regulate and govern autonomous ship deployment.

“Within the next 18 months to two years, we will see the first commercially operated remote-controlled vessels, but they’ll be in coastal waters so that individual countries can set the legislative environment.” Naval autonomy will likely be put on hold until countries can agree on common codes, and its highly unlikely that vessels transporting hazardous substances (oil, gas, volatile chemicals, etc.) will ever be go fully crewless.

At the moment however, Rolls-Royce is content with the hardware their Intelligent Awareness systems will receive from its partnership with Intel, and has plans to launch with fully autonomous vessels in the future.

Daffey said in a statement:

“We’re delighted to sign this agreement with Intel and look forward to working together on developing exciting new technologies and products, which will play a big part in enabling the safe operation of autonomous ships. This collaboration can help us to develop technology that supports ship owners in the automation of their navigation and operations, reducing the opportunity for human error and allowing crews to focus on more valuable tasks.”