Rolls-Royce partners with Intel to bring autonomy to ships

The new Intelligent Awareness System will serve as the "eyes and ears" of shipping vessels, Rolls-Royce says.

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After two years of work with Intel, Rolls-Royce is introducing a new Intelligent Awareness System to the shipping industry. The AI-powered system will serve as the "eyes and ears" of shipping vessels, bringing them one step closer to autonomy, according to Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce's director of engineering & technology and ship intelligence.

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The Intelligent Awareness System processes data inputs from LIDAR, radar, thermal cameras, HD cameras, satellite data and weather forecasts. With all of this data, a ship can maintain awareness of its surroundings, detecting objects as far as several kilometers away.

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All of of those inputs can generate up to a TB of data a day, Daffey said, which is stored on the ship using Intel 3D NAND SSDs. The system will collect about a month of data on board a ship before uploading it to the cloud. Meanwhile, the system uses Intel Xeon Scalable processors on the ships themselves to run machine learning and inference workloads locally.

After training the system for many months on a Japanese passenger ferry, Daffey said Rolls-Royce is launching it as a standalone product and is beginning to bid it into the industry.

Deploying AI on an environment like a ship is technically challenging for a variety of reasons, Remi El-Ouazzane, VP and COO of Intel's AI Products Group, told reporters last week. For instance, the multi-modal sensory inputs, across many sensors, makes inference on a vessel at scale highly difficult. Severe weather conditions can make it difficult for LIDAR sensors to detect far-away objects. Digital images must be processes in high detail to detect images in the water.

Rolls-Royce -- a key player in the shipping industry -- has been invested in autonomous systems for the last three years, Daffey told reporters last week.

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"The purpose has been to drive additional safety into shipping," he said, noting that about 70 percent to 80 percent of accidents at sea are caused by human error.

While certain ships will never be completely unmanned, there are classes of vessels that may only need remote-controlled human assistance, such as tug boats or some ferries. They could be controlled by a land-based crew "that would get to go home every night, see their families and work in shifts," Daffey said.

Moving crews to shore would not only be safer but also make shipping cheaper. By eliminating supply chain interruptions and reducing maintenance needs, autonomous systems could reduce fleet costs by something like 30 percent Daffey said.

Meanwhile, the Intelligent Awareness System could also serve as a sort of "black box" on ships, helping shipping companies reduce their insurance premiums by keeping records that demonstrate their ships are operated safely.

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