Rolls-Royce, ESA collaborate on autonomous shipping

December 12, 2017  - By
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Rolls-Royce and the European Space Agency (ESA) have signed a cooperation agreement aimed at pursuing space activities in support of autonomous, remote-controlled shipping and promoting innovation in European digital logistics.

The collaboration with Rolls-Royce aims to study the applications of various space assets to autonomous shipping, such as satellite-based positioning, better situational awareness using Earth observation data, and satcom services for improved onboard connectivity. It aims to develop and validate new solutions for communication between vessel systems and shore-based systems in addition to ship-to-ship communication.

This will pave the way for the operation of commercial remote and autonomous shipping, innovative cargo logistics, smart ports and future commercial marine vessels.

The partnership will enable satellites to serve navigation, ship intelligence, marine operations, cargo logistics, maritime safety, healthcare, passenger and crew communications.

The next generation of 5G communications will rely on seamless integration of telecom networks and services, and ESA’s Satellite for 5G Initiative supports the technical and supply chain progress required, and will support development of 5G commercial services.

The Memorandum of Intent (MOI) forms part of ESA’s wider strategy. In its new navigation research and technology programme, called the Navigation Innovation and Support Programme (NAVISP), ESA is studying and testing technologies for smart ships.

NAVISP is investigating the integration of satellite navigation with non-space technologies and complementary positioning and communication techniques. NAVISP will apply ESA’s expertise from Galileo and EGNOS to new satellite navigation and, more widely, positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) challenges.

ESA already serves the maritime community with many satellite capabilities. SAT-AIS (Satellite Automatic Identification System) permits identification and global tracking of ships using cutting-edge space and ground technology, using low Earth orbiting satellites to act as information relays to serve the whole globe. This results in more efficient use of existing infrastructures, a tangible reduction in cost and a decrease in the environmental impact.

The ESA developed Sentinel-1 satellite, part of the European Union’s Copernicus programme, is establishing a pivotal role in the sector. Last August, Sentinel-1 Earth observation data helped the U.S. Coast Guard vessel Maple navigate through the legendary Northwest Passage, showcasing the enormous potential that satellite earth observation can have across the industry, particularly in ship-to-ship data transmission.

Rolls-Royce and ESA also plan to cooperate in harnessing the power of big data. Data analytics, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can improve operational efficiency, reliability and safety.

Sensor data will inform augmented and virtual realities, or “digital twins.” A digital twin is an AI copy of a ship, including its systems, that synthesises the information available about the ship in a hologram.

“It allows any aspect of an asset to be explored through a digital interface, creating a virtual test bench to assess the safety and performance of a vessel and its systems, both before its construction and through its lifecycle,”  said Karno Tenovuo, SVP ship intelligence at Rolls-Royce. “By creating ships and ship technology in a virtual environment, new ideas and technology can be realized and tested in a shorter time frame.”

About the Author:


Tracy Cozzens has served as managing editor of GPS World magazine since 2006, and also is editor of GPS World’s sister website, Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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