Self-sailing ships can’t get drunk, tired, or lose focus

Using cameras, lidar, and radar, Rolls-Royce wants to make self-sailing ships, and trials are already running around the world.

Since the early 2010s, Rolls Royce has been working on autonomous shipping technology and could launch its first uncrewed vessels as early as 2020. Ship Intelligence is already improving vessel performance, operation and safety, and is expected to redefine the industry as the world moves toward a more remote and autonomous future. 

Early this year, Rolls-Royce launched an Intelligent Awareness system for crewed vessels. The system includes a network of cameras, LIDAR and radar, which are all overseen by a central program. Using machine vision algorithms, this program looks for obstacles—like other ships—and sends automated alerts to the crew. The Intelligent Awareness system automatically classifies nearby ships and combines data from multiple sources to improve visibility in poor weather conditions. 

In order to identify small objects on the horizon, the ships require cameras with pixel counts so high they’ll end up with about a terabyte of data to sort through every day. To tackle this staggering amount of data, Rolls is teaming up with Intel to install onboard server rooms to provide the necessary processing power. 

Collecting data is just step one. Understanding it comes thanks to around 5 million crowdsourced images that will train AI on what boats look like from every angle, how markers appear, and where coastlines begin and end. 

“Tugs, ferries, and short-sea transport, these are all classes of vessels that we believe would be suitable for completely autonomous operations, monitored by a land based crew, who get to go home every night,” says Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce's director of marine engineering and technology. What makes them suitable? Currently, they all rely on humans who need to be paid—and who can make costly mistakes. 

In the past decade, there have been more than 1,000 total losses of large ships—at least 70% of which resulted from human error. Self-sailing ships can’t get drunk, tired, or lose focus. They react more quickly than humans and can see in every direction at once. With the right programming, they might take over the world, or at the very least crash less frequently than humans. From an economic standpoint, autonomous ships are significantly more efficient because without humans, they don’t need those silly old life support systems doing things like heating, cooking, and carrying drinking water along for the ride. 

A trial system has already begun on ferries off the southwest coast of Finland and on a Japanese ferry out of Kobe, which typically runs at night, and is able to collect a lot of thermal-camera night-vision images.

Self-sailing ships could completely change the shipping game—and they aren’t far off. Those interested in keeping up with industry shifts can look to Rolls-Royce leading the way with autonomous ships that are already testing the waters and making waves. And if you’re interested in becoming a crew member, well, that ship has sailed, presumably unmanned and free of human error.