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© Rolls-Royce
© Rolls-Royce

A captain was steering his ship through the North Sea off Scotland with a joystick — and was sitting on dry land in California in the process. The Finnish marine engineering group Wärtsila and the American offshore oil service group Gulfmark have fitted an ocean-going ship for a trial with technology for unmanned sailing.

 

© Wärtsilä
© Wärtsilä

The 80 metre “Highland Chieftain” normally supplies oil-drilling and oil production platforms and is equipped to deal with special conditions. Due to the extreme weather in the North Sea, the ship is fitted with navigation, automation and positioning systems which guarantee that it can be unloaded even in tough conditions and high waves. Technicians were now able to access these systems for the sake of short-term automation — only 30 hours were needed to convert the ship to autonomous operation. In the end, the ship sailed in normal shipping lanes that had not been specially cordoned off.

 

© Wärtsilä
© Wärtsilä

More room for cargo without people

Wärtsila is one of the first companies to send self-piloting ships onto the high seas but it is not the only one with this vision of the future. Rolls-Royce and the Finnish research centre VTT also announced last year that they were working on it together. “The first vessels will go live with this technology by 2020”, says Kevin Daffey, Director of Engineering & Technology at Rolls Royce. No crew on board means no need for a deckhouse or other superstructures and no life-preserving systems. “That gives more space for cargo”, Daffey explains. It also lowers energy consumption and benefits safety, he adds. Up to 96 percent of all accidents at sea are due to human error, one Allianz study found out.

© Rolls-Royce
© Rolls-Royce

At Rolls-Royce, they are planning the implementation of autonomous sailing in three stages. From 2025, remote-controlled ships are to sail close to the shoreline, from 2030 on the high seas — and from 2035, all-round autonomous seafaring will be finally achievable, they explain.