Remote-Controlled Ferries by 2020?

Sydney ferry

Published Sep 15, 2015 4:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

The first remote-controlled ferry demonstrator could hit the water within four to five years thanks to a new wave of research into operational efficiency based on ship intelligence solutions.

The prediction was made by Oskar Levander, VP for innovation, engineering and technology at Rolls-Royce Marine in Finland ahead of next month’s 40th annual Interferry conference in Copenhagen, where technical innovations will be a central theme of the trade association’s agenda.    

Levander will suggest that the maritime industry is at the dawn of an era in which ship intelligence is one of the main technology trends – driving advances such as increased automation, smart controls, robotics, optimisation/decision support tools, equipment/system health management and predictive maintenance schemes. 

He believes that ship intelligence will also drive the development of remote control and autonomous solutions, stressing: “Today there is a lot of R&D focus on unmanned airplanes and driverless land-based vehicles and society is becoming more prepared to accept these game-changing solutions.  It is only a question of time as to when shipping will follow the same path.”

According to Levander, the first unmanned commercial ships are likely be locally operated vessels since single flag states can permit their operation before international regulations are in place.  In his view, ferries would be a prime candidate for early adoption because they operate within a confined area and in addition there is a clear desire to address crew costs.  

He adds that studies indicate most essential technology building blocks are already in place, but practical marine solutions will still require some development efforts.

Rolls-Royce is leading 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.

The project will run until the end of 2017 and 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.