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Rolls-Royce has plans for an autonomous naval ship

Rolls-Royce has become the latest company to enter the autonomous shipping arena, revealing plans for a 197-foot-long (60m) autonomous vessel that will perform missions including patrolling, surveillance, mine detection, and fleet screening. The company says it’s seeing interest from the world’s major navies into autonomous ships, rather than vessels that are remote controlled. It expects that over the next decade, there will be an introduction of crewed and uncrewed autonomous ships and fleets. (The crewed ships would be larger in size, and used in multi-role missions.) Rolls-Royce began developing uncrewed ship technology in 2013.

Rolls-Royce says it’s using artificial intelligence and sensors to create an intelligent awareness system that will help ships operate safely. Those autonomous support tools include energy management, equipment health monitoring, and predictive and remote maintenance for the autonomous ships.

The ship will have a planned range of 3,500 nautical miles, be able to operate for over 100 days, and reach speeds of over 25 knots. The company says the ship will have a powerful electric propulsion system with two generators that will provide four megawatts of electrical power to a 1.5-megawatt propulsion drive. It will also feature solar panels and 3,000kWh of energy storage for when the ship is loitering at lower speeds.

More and more ships are heading toward becoming autonomous, because of lower operating costs and higher levels of safety. And we’ve seen plenty of concepts and plans for autonomous ships before over the past couple years: in 2016, the US military revealed an experimental 132-foot warship that can operate on its own for months at a time, and earlier this year, Norwegian company Yara said its crewless, automated cargo ship will launch in 2018, and is expected to be fully autonomous by 2020.

Previous reports have placed Rolls-Royce at still some 10 to 15 years away from deploying a large drone vessel in international waters. So it may be a while before we know how much safer these ships can make the open seas.

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