On Tuesday, Rolls Royce and its partners in the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) initiative released a white paper on their vision for the future of computer-controlled merchant vessels – and they believe that we will see the first such ship by the end of the decade.
“Autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry. As disruptive as the smart phone, the smart ship will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations,” said Mikael Makinen, president of Rolls-Royce Marine.
AAWA’s optimism for such rapid development aside, the consortium also emphasized that autonomy would proceed developmentally through phases of ever-increasing computerization of ship operations. In the area of machine intelligence, these levels are described on the Sheridan scale of human involvement in a system – ranging from full human control (as at present) to computer suggested alternatives, all the way up to full computer execution without human consultation. At first, autonomous ships may be at the lower end of the scale, giving the shipboard navigator a variety of options for him or her to choose from; later iterations could make navigation decisions and inform a shoreside operator after the fact.
The group also notes that varying levels of automation will also be appropriate for different vessel types and operational circumstances – as at present, where autopilot or autotrack navigation may be used in some areas and manual steering with a helmsman is required in others.
“In some cases, such as navigation in the open seas, the ship can be nearly fully autonomous whereas for some parts of the voyage it will require close supervision and decision making, or even full tele-operation from the human operator,” AAWA wrote.