Self-Driving Ships?

Rolls-Royce is using Big Data to make ships smarter and eventually drive themselves

Rolls-Royce (RR) is not just another engine manufacturer, but rather they see themselves as a provider of “highly-efficient integrated power and propulsion solutions”[1]. This distinction speaks to the three key pillars of Rolls-Royce’s business model (1) Engineering Excellence, (2) Operating Excellence, and (3) Capturing After Market Value, and Big Data plays an important roll in all three of these categories from design and manufacturing to ongoing operations.  In their own words – “we analyse billions of data points every day. We have developed a capability to detect, diagnose, and prioritise issues with critical equipment and a deep understanding of the tools, processes and business models needed to do that.”[2] All of their equipment is already fitted with sensors that collect and analyze data leading to actionable recommendations that that can deliver increased safety and efficiency. However, the company’s latest venture into “Ship Intelligence” will leverage over 20 years in Equipment Health Management (EHM) in aerospace and help propel the shipping industry into the future.

What is Ship Intelligence?

“We are entering a truly exciting period in the history of shipping, where technology, and in particular the smart use of Big Data is going to drive the next generation of ships. Over the next ten to 20 years we believe Ship Intelligence is going to be the driving force that will determine the future of our industry, the type of ships at sea, and the competence levels required from tomorrow’s seafarers.” – Mikael Makinen, Rolls-Royce, President – Marine

Ship Intelligence is Rolls-Royce’s initiative to make ships smarter via big data analytics and artificial intelligence.  In the short- to medium-term this will involve solutions similar to those it applies in aerospace to monitor and improve performance of its jet engines.  Longer-term projects are aimed at developing the technology for remote and autonomous vessels.

RR has already invested in a new Marine Fleet Management Center in Norway which will allow it to remotely monitor and provide data analysis and optimization of ships and their onboard equipment. This is essentially an extension of its “Power by the Hour” concept from the aerospace business to the marine business.[3]

Beyond expanding existing capabilities to other verticals, RR is also investing in projects focused on the future development of remote and autonomous shipping technologies. Their ambition is to see a remote-controlled ship in commercial use by 2020.

Here’s a teaser of what the land-based control center could look like:

Rolls-Royce future shore control centre

To make this vision a reality, RR will have to pursue innovation in both hardware and software technologies. On the hardware front, they need to perform a series of tests at sea to find the optimum sensor technology that works in various operating conditions to collect all the data necessary to allow the vessel to navigate safely and accurately.  These ships will have to respond to diverse environmental conditions as well as various maritime rules and regulations so from an artificial intelligence standpoint RR needs to collect copious amounts of data and then develop and test control algorithms.  This development will involve a “gradual and iterative process” especially since they need to meet very high standards to make autonomous shipping practical [4].

Value Creation

Ship Intelligence (from Power by the Hour to autonomous shipping) will allow customers to run leaner operations. In the short- to medium-term they will be able to save on fuel costs, increase safety on board, reduce the opportunity for human error, and free up crews for more valuable tasks via the automation of certain processes.  RR also envisions a world where shipping will become a modular component of fully integrated supply chains and larger production processes and Ship Intelligence will be an important tool in addressing total asset utilization and process optimization [5].  If and when remotely controlled ships become a reality, companies will save even more on labor costs as well as fuel since ships will not need to have crew quarters.

Value Capture

RR started providing customers with data solutions as a strategic response to the increasing commoditization of its jet engine business.  The company has made the greatest advancements in its aerospace division where it rolled out a new service model called Total Care in which customers are charged per hour for use of its engines, with RR underwriting all of the servicing costs. Ship Intelligence will probably extend this model to shipping and take it a step further.  By providing a full ship intelligence system, RR’s customers will become even stickier as the company provides them with a fully integrated shipping solution – from equipment to software to data analytics and beyond.

Challenges and Opportunities

Successful implementation of Ship Intelligence will not be easy.  RR will have to contend with technology challenges, regulatory hurdles, and increased competition from new start ups that will not have to worry about the large fixed costs associated with manufacturing, but rather can focus on specialized software development.  However, RR can leverage existing resources as it makes its vision a reality including existing client relationships, years of experience in data analytics and the global scale and reputation to form partnerships to fill in gaps in its own capabilities.  By proactively pursuing Ship Intelligence, Rolls-Royce is using data analytics and artificial intelligence to shape a future in which it continues to lead by driving innovation.

Check out another Ship Intelligence initiative – the smart bridge – here:

More videos and mock ups here: Rolls Royce Ship Intelligence







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Student comments on Self-Driving Ships?

  1. Really neat post Seanna, thanks! Given that commercial airplanes can essentially be controlled without incident during entire flights as well as all of the UAV technology already existing, this seems doable. I wonder why it hasn’t been focused on earlier? (Or it has and I just didn’t know:) I think Rolls-Royce should potentially work with a government/national navies as their first customer to develop this technology to leverage the many seaborne platforms from which they can collect and use data.

  2. Thanks for the post Seanna. This is really cool! It was like watching a Hollywood movie. But as you mentioned it seems it requires huge capex. I wonder how can RR obtain buy-in of shipping companies. If were a management of shipping company I would think I rather incur higher labor costs in order to avoid huge up front capital spending (shipping business is cyclical and vulnerable to macro economies and thus they would be concern about their cash position). Also this revolutionary ship would change secondary market of ship sales / purchase and I wonder how many players can afford to purchase the products. Would market be sufficiently big enough? As Tyler mentioned in his comment, I think RR should target governmental agencies too, as they would have more leeway in their budget and would be keen on technological advancement.

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