Robot ships controlled by satellite are on the horizon

Project with Rolls Royce and Inmarsat could automate the high seas.

Self-sailing ships to follow self-driving cars. Image: Eugene Sergeev

Today self-driving cars and lorries are taking to the roads, and soon self-sailing ships will be steaming over the horizon: Inmarsat is the latest company to joined a project aimed at autonomous shipping.

The €6.6m Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) is funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, and brings together tech companies, universities, research institutes, and ship owners to work on the legal, regulatory, and technology factors that need to be addressed in order to make autonomous ships a reality.

The technology element of the project, led by Rolls Royce, aims to produce specifications and designs for autonomous ships, and is looking at the implications of remote control and autonomy of ships for propulsion, deck machinery, and other systems.

Inmarsat's role is to provide the satellite communications link needed for the remote control of ships at sea.

Data transfer between ships, as well as between ships and shore-based control centres, is one of the key development areas for remote-controlled and autonomous ship research, according to Inmarsat. The project will build on existing communications systems using Inmarsat's satellite constellations.

"The wide-ranging project will look at research carried out to date, before exploring the business case for autonomous applications, the safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships, the legal and regulatory implications and the existence and readiness of a supplier network able to deliver commercially applicable products in the short to medium term," said Esa Jokioinen, from the Rolls-Royce head of blue ocean team.

The Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative will run from 2015 to the end 2017.

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