Rolls-Royce, ESA to Work on Shipping’s Digital Future

UK-based engineering company 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.

As explained, the two parties aim to develop and validate new solutions for communication between vessel systems and shore-based systems in addition to ship-to-ship communication. This will enable the operation of commercial remote and autonomous shipping, innovative cargo logistics, smart ports and future commercial marine vessels.

“The space industry has been operating assets remotely for many decades. The information, software and satellite-based technologies the sector has developed are wholly relevant to the work Rolls-Royce is doing to make the remote and autonomous ship a reality,” Karno Tenovuo, Rolls-Royce, SVP Ship Intelligence, said.

“This agreement is another demonstration of the positive application of Space 4.0 and the desire for a United Space in Europe; maximising the integration of space into our economy and society,” Jan Wörner, ESA’s Director General, commented.

The next generation of 5G communications will rely on integration of telecom networks and services, and ESA’s Satellite for 5G Initiative exists to support the technical and supply chain progress required, and follow through to support the development of the commercial services that this enables.

“The current wireless carriers like satellite and associated infrastructure need to be developed to facilitate the development of remote & autonomous ships, as existing configurations were not designed for this purpose,” Tenovuo added.

Furthermore, “Rolls-Royce and the ESA will look at developing satellite-based positioning for ‘smart’ ships which will be based on its ‘earth observation platform’. This could create greater spatial and situational awareness for those operating the vessel remotely. It will also allow satellites to capture and share the data from a number of vessels simultaneously.”

Image Courtesy: DNV GL

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

The ESA developed Sentinel-1 satellite as part of the European Union’s Copernicus program. Last August, Sentinel-1 Earth observation data helped the US Coast Guard vessel Maple navigate through the 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, according to Rolls-Royce. 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 synthesizes 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. By creating ships and ship technology in a virtual environment, new ideas and technology can be realised and tested in a shorter time frame,” Tenovuo explained.

“Space 4.0 and ESA’s Satellite for 5G Initiative enable, support and foster developments, validations and trials of products and applications in diverse areas of the maritime industry, and this partnership between the European Space Agency and Rolls-Royce will enable satellites to serve ship intelligence, marine operations, navigation, cargo logistics, maritime safety, healthcare, passenger and crew communications,” Wörner concluded.