Just like many other forms of transportation cargo ships aren’t immune from the march of technological progress, as such in time they too will become increasingly autonomous and electric.


Rolls Royce and the led Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) believe the future of cargo transportation is autonomous and they have published an 88 page white paper to prove it.

The company outlined its vision of remote controlled cargo ships at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam last week, claiming unmanned vessels would be cheaper to operate and would have more space for cargo.


The ships and the control rooms of the future

Speaking at the Symposium Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce, Vice President of Innovation – Marine, said:

“This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist. The AAWA project is testing sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions in Finland and has created a simulated autonomous ship control system which allows the behaviour of the complete communication system to be explored and we will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”


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The project also has the support of ship owners and operators. The tests of sensor arrays are being carried out aboard Finferries 65 metre double ended ferry, the Stella, which operates between Korpo and Houtskär while ESL Shipping Ltd is helping explore the implications of remote and autonomous ships for the short sea cargo sector.

If introduced in this timeframe, ships could beat cars to be the first autonomous vehicle to be rolled out on a significant scale.

The route to transform commercial shipping is not plain sailing, however, with the white paper warning that autonomous ships may be more vulnerable to piracy as inadequate security would potentially mean hackers could commandeer the freighters.

“In principle, anybody skilful and capable to attain access into the ICT system could take control of the ship and change its operation according to hackers’ objectives,” the white paper states.

“This could mean simply some disruptive actions or manoeuvres introduced for annoyance or demonstration, hijacking of the ship and cargo for ransom, but also powered groundings or collisions created on purpose to cause severe destruction.”

Rolls Royce is not first to float the idea of autonomous ships, with the US Navy launched it’s first fully autonomous warship, dubbed the Sea Hunter, earlier this year in what is seen as a dramatic advancement as we head towards fully autonomous, hunter killer weapons platforms but unlike it’s USN counter part Rolls Royce still plans for there to be a human in the loop – albeit someone in a control center thousands of miles away.


About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.


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