UK-based engineering company Rolls-Royce has unveiled plans to design and develop a remotely controlled and autonomous ship, as early as 2020.

In a recently published whitepaper, the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), led by Rolls-Royce, has elaborated its vision of making remote and autonomous shipping a reality.

As part of the AAWA project, a test of sensor arrays has been conducted aboard Finferries’ 65m double ended ferry, Stella, which operates between Finland’s Korpo and Houtskär.

"This is happening. It’s not if, it’s when. The technologies needed to make remote and autonomous ships a reality exist."

The project, which received a €6.6m investment from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, is due to run until next year.

Rolls-Royce marine innovation vice-president Oskar Levander 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.

"We will see a remote controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade."

The AAWA project will produce the specification and preliminary designs for the next generation of advanced ship solutions.

The recently published AAWA whitepaper explores the research conducted so far on the business case for autonomous applications as well as safety and security implications of designing and operating remotely operated ships.

It also details the legal and regulatory dimensions and the existence and readiness of a supplier network to deliver commercially applicable products in the short to medium term.

The project includes researchers from Finland’s Tampere University of Technology, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Åbo Akademi University, Aalto University, the University of Turku, and maritime industry players such as Rolls-Royce, NAPA, Deltamarin, DNV GL, and Inmarsat.

Rolls-Royce noted that shipping firm ESL Shipping is also contributing to the exploration of the implications of remote and autonomous ships for the short sea cargo sector.

Image: Rolls-Royce-led AAWA is developing remotely-controlled autonomous ship technology. Photo: courtesy of Rolls-Royce plc.