Karno Tenovuo leads the ship intelligence business unit at Rolls-Royce’s marine division, which was set up in 2015 to pioneer technologies leading to the development of fully autonomous ships.
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The business unit offers three main products in shipping. The first is health management, to monitor data and provide predictive analytics. The second is optimisation for ships, such as its new energy management service, launched in June 2017, which takes metadata to optimise fuel costs and emissions. The third focus area is remote and autonomous technologies for the marine market.
Rolls-Royce is pioneering the development of remotely controlled and autonomous ships and believes there will be one in commercial use by the end of the decade. The company is applying technology, skills and experience from across its businesses to this project.
Last November, Rolls-Royce began working with VTT Technical Research Centre to test and validate the first generation of remote and autonomous ships.
Tenovuo says the company gave a demonstration of a remotely controlled ship in February this year. The vessel, Svitzer Hermod, a Robert Allan ship design, was built at Turkey’s Sanmar yard in 2016 and is equipped with a Rolls-Royce Dynamic Positioning System.
This uses a range of sensors, which Tenovuo says provides intelligence awareness and is effectively the eyes of the vessel. It combines different data inputs using advanced software to give the captain an enhanced understanding of the vessel and its surroundings. The data is transmitted reliably and securely to a remote operating centre (ROC), from where the captain controls the ship.
According to Rolls-Royce, the ROC was designed to redefine the way in which vessels are controlled. Instead of copying existing wheelhouse design, the ROC used input from experienced captains to optimise the different system components. The aim is to create a future-proof standard for the remote control of vessels.
Working with Google
The company has begun working with Google’s Cloud Machine Learning Engine to further train its artificial intelligence (AI)-based object classification system for detecting, identifying and tracking the objects a ship can encounter at sea.
“We are working with Google to optimise local neural networking on ships,” says Tenovuo. “Combining intelligence and remote operations and autonomous systems improves the awareness of the ship.”
The technology that is being developed is closely related to autonomous mining, cars and planes, he points out.
But clearly, there are difference. Tenovuo says: “Car AI benefits from small scale and are low-powered. There are also size and cost limitations. Ship AI needs to operate longer out at sea, across many different environments, and the weather can be very bad.”
He says the work with Google will help Rolls-Royce to take what Google has developed for autonomous cars, such as intelligent awareness to support lane assist and collision avoidance, to develop models for ships.
Tenovuo believes fully autonomous ships will offer a number of important benefits. “If we look into the future, fully autonomous ships can be leaner,” he says. “The crew can be onshore and we can increase cargo-carrying capacity.
“Different vessel types will apply AI technology to improve safety and efficiency. Some vessels will be fully autonomous and even if there is a crew on board, they will have lower manning levels.”
The idea of connected maritime vessels creates a missing link in logistics, Tenovuo suggests. “In the end, shipping has been a quite isolated part of the supply chain.”
Ideally, there should be visibility from the factory to the end-consumer, says Tenovuo, who expects the use of autonomous technology to power the optimisation of supply chains for customers.
“This will be a disruptive change in the shipping sector,” he says. “The last big innovation was the introduction of container shipping, and before that there was the introduction of diesel engines.”
Tenovuo expects the main impact will be on efficiency, revenue-making, and safety for the crew and vessel. “Everybody realises we can’t have end-to-end logistics supply chains with tens of different silos,” he says. “There are so many inefficiencies. We need to optimise this so that everyone can benefit.”
Autonomous vessels will solve one part of the problem, says Tenovuo. but he adds: “Then we need open platforms.”
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Traversing the world’s oceans in an autonomous ship would be a bit like the Cassini spacecraft’s epic journey across space to Saturn. And although no ship is likely to remain on a mission for 20 years, reliability during the time at sea is crucial.
Tenovuo says the industry has adopted some of Nasa’s best practices, particularly in software development. “In space, you test and develop it – then it had better work, because you can’t go to the moon to fix it,” he says. “It is now common practice in aerospace and marine to create safety-critical software. We improve an algorithm and circulate it to tens of thousands of ships, so we need to make sure it works first time.”
His ambition is to provide ships with continuous improvement through software updates, similar to the way Tesla updates its electric cars.
“Our brand is trusted to deliver excellence,” he says. “I have followed Tesla very closely. I like that business model. We want our vessels to have the best software. When they come into port, we can upload them with the latest software – my dream is that the vessels will always run the latest software.
Challenge of AI at sea
Ubiquitous connectivity is among the prerequisites for autonomous vehicles, but at sea, bandwidth can be non-existent or is extremely expensive. Tenovuo says: “Shipping today starts at a port, where there is 3G and 4G networking, but when you go some kilometres out to sea, you have to rely on satellite communications.”
OneWeb, backed by Richard Branson and the rival SpaceX initiative from Elon Musk, aims to create a worldwide high bandwidth network using low orbit satellites. These initiatives hold the promise of ubiquitous high-bandwidth global networking that autonomous maritime vessels could rely on for connectivity.
However, Rolls-Royce sees remote control, such as in the demonstration it gave of its ROC, shows that such vessels can be controlled and monitored with today’s technology. Tenovuo says: “Many vessels will be remote control mode rather than fully autonomous, so you don’t need the connectivity. You just need navigation systems.”