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Rolls-Royce and Intel are developing the self-propelled ship of the future. A competitor to the “Tesla of the Sea”?

Rolls-Royce and Intel are developing the self-propelled ship of the future

It was expected, and yet also surprising. Rolls-Royce will make autonomous ships a reality. But in order to cope with managing all the data generated by the autonomous systems, Rolls-Royce has initiated collaboration with Intel. We have long awaited automation to reach the world of water, as we have reported throughout the year, but now we can finally expect it to happen. But when? Do not expect fully self-propelled ships to become a reality in the near future, but Rolls-Royce has set the goal of launching the first fully autonomous cargo ship without human crew by 2025. What does all of this actually entail?

Last year, there were headlines about a Norwegian company making waves in this field. It was reported that the world’s first vessel run without a crew would happen this year and it became labelled as the Tesla of the Sea. The Yara Birkeland sounded promising  from its initial reports and we were enthusiastic to see how the project would be realized this year. Well, it’s 2018 and the project has still not officially been launched as it was pushed forward another year. In 2019, however, the project will not be completely trusted to full autonomy as a small crew will likely remain on board during its trials. Full operation is expected to be reached in 2020.

“Of course, it’s fun to be first. We believe this is the future” says Kristin Nordal, communications manager at Yara to Aftenposten.


The MV Yara Birkeland project has a cost of $25 million but has been prized highly by various stakeholders – also notably due to its electric motors driven by two azimuth pods and two tunnel thrusters. The Wall Street Journal writes that Norwegian companies, in general, are at the forefront of building the world’s first self-governing vessel that has the potential to revolutionize shipping. By using GPS, radar, cameras and sensors, the ship Yara Birkeland will be able to navigate – and port at all ports without crew and doing so at zero emissions!

“We have a close and good dialogue with the Swedish Maritime Administration and the Coastal Administration, and we feel they are very positive. The goal is to establish a national regulatory framework, says communications manager Kristin Nordal at Yara to Aftenposten.

Yara International is behind the shipbuilding, together with the companies Birkeland and Kongsberggruppen and there’s an interest in the form of operators of vessels, fishing vessels and delivery vessels that are knocking on their door. It should be noted that due to the costs of repairing autonomous ships, it would cause various delays and insecurities. Generally, it’s viewed upon as a huge positive. While Yara Birkeland plans to be the first, and we look forward to hearing more about the project as it develops – let’s now shift to another announcement that has been making waves this week and that is the collaboration between Rolls-Royce and Intel in the very same field. 

It should be noted that Rolls-Royce has been working on autonomous ships since 2010, and earlier this year, a sample version was released with the Intelligent Awareness Navigation System, designed for manned ships. It is based on a number of cameras, members and radar – controlled by a central program. It uses artificial intelligence for machine vision, which works with image-based analysis.

Last year, Rolls-Royce promised that the first unmanned craft would be in the water already 2025. But apparently there is no hardware available – for now, collaboration with Intel has been initiated to help manage the information from the sensors. As part of the deal, you get access to Intel’s 3D NAND flash drive, which will handle up to 1TB of data generated by the systems every day – and all is processed by Intel’s Xeon chip.

The Intelligent Awareness system can automatically classify surrounding craft, whether it’s regular boats, passenger ferries or oil tankers. The technology provides much better conditions in bad weather, and not least for use in crowded passages with many other ships. What’s not surprising about this is that sensors may take over the job. This applies, for example, when speeding up or down. In tight situations, there are usually crew-members with walkie-talkies to keep an eye out and warn of danger. Now they are replaced by sensors. Good or bad? According to Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce chief of ship intelligence, Intelligent Awareness constitutes the eyes and ears of the ship.

“By using the lid system, you can get accurate information about the distance to the dock in real time. And if other ships get too close, an alarm is triggered, says Daffey to The Verge.

Currently, Intelligent Awareness is tested on a number of ships, and Rolls-Royce has increased the sales rate. But the most important thing about technology is that it is the first step towards their own version of autonomy vis-à-vis the Norwegian counterpart. However, the crutch is not the ability of the systems to read its surroundings – but the major obstacle to unmanned ships is the new legislation that must be implemented.

“In the next 18 months to two years we will see the first commercial, remote-controlled vehicles. But they will move in coastal waters so that individual countries can set their own legislation,” said Daffey.

Legal monitoring on international waters can not be carried out before all countries have agreed on a common law. Rolls-Royce, however, finds it unlikely that sensitive commodities like oil and gas will ever be transported on ships without crew. It’ll be interesting to see how they can tackle this problem – but we should all applaud the steps taken by these two companies to make sure that ships get the autonomy that they so desperately need. Cars are starting to receive it, why shouldn’t commercial ships? It doesn’t matter who comes first in this competition as it seeks to benefit us all.

Evolvera – always changing, always evolving.

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