Electric Blue concept ship

Rolls-Royce Marine unveils ‘Electric Blue’ modular smart shipping concept

Image credit: Rolls-Royce Marine

Rolls-Royce Marine has revealed its vision for the future of shipping, showing its concept design for a future-proof container-carrying ship, featuring modular components that can be swapped out or renewed to adapt to changing needs.

The ship, called Electric Blue, is based on an industry-standard 1,000 TEU feeder vessel (where TEU refers to the containers carried on board: Twenty-foot Equivalent Units). The ship has a flexible design, notably in the change of propulsion from diesel to electric, which can be tailored for specific routes and to meet environmental requirements, now and in the future. The engines can also be replaced or upgraded, as necessary.

The concept ship is Rolls-Royce’s reaction to a changing shipping scene and a calculated gamble on the future of world sea trade. Shipping is under pressure from myriad environmental regulations around the world; fluctuating fuel costs and energy mix options; developments in global logistics; changing trade patterns and technical developments in all areas of operations. Unsurprisingly, making the right investment decision when considering the purchase of a new ship, or fleet of ships, is a very expensive one.

Electric Blue has been engineered to exhibit a clean design, with low building costs, low maintenance and new construction possibilities, with everything (e.g. batteries and LNG fuel tanks) based around containers, so it’s a (relatively) simple crane lift out, drop in to replace or upgrade various elements. 

Even the control bridge is housed in a container, keeping one eye on a fully autonomous future for container ships. At that time, the owner could remove the bridge entirely from the ship and relocate it on shore to control the vessel remotely from dry land. For now, the bridge is on board the ship, housed below the containers at the rear of the ship rather than above, thus freeing valuable space for additional cargo payload. 

The ship utilises a ‘sensor fusion’ for safe navigation, employing radar, camera, IR camera, lidar and AIS (automatic identification system) - rather like the 360-degree sensor cocoon increasingly considered as essential for level 5 fully autonomous cars. Much like driverless cars, the road map for autonomous shipping spans a similar timeframe: 2020 for partial autonomy, 2025-2030 for remote operation, possibly with a reduced passive crew on board, and 2035 for full autonomy. 

The ship also has a wider design than current container ships, with a slightly arched hull design and a deeper, sharper bow design to minimise the effects of wave slamming when out at sea. Dual-propellers have been specified for ballast and also propeller redundancy. They have been set as low as possible to ensure they always remain below the waterline.

The wide steel hull doesn’t need any water ballast on board to stabilise the ship, something common to modern container ships: “And we avoid the investment of putting one million in to the ballast water treatment systems”, said Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine. “It’s all about redefining shipping.” 

Compared with standard current ship design, the build costs of Electric Blue, as outlined by Levander, have been estimated to save approximately 2.5 million euros. Rolls-Royce had its own calculations verified by an independent shipping design company and it came to the same conclusion. 

The design of Electric Blue can be scaled down or up and Rolls-Royce is already considering a 4,000 TEU version.

Rolls-Royce’s intention is to offer a ship with maximum modularity, a vessel designed to respond to market changes, which is “remote operation ready”.

The company has taken inspiration and ideas from its related experience in the aviation sector and from observing the business models of low-cost airlines, which typically are built around a lean organisation, a standardised fleet, highly efficient utilisation of that fleet and point-to-point travel to avoid main hubs and their high landing prices.

The idea of low-cost smart shipping could see new players emerging in what is currently a very traditional marketplace. New players could use the modular concept of a ship such as Electric Blue to leverage the ship’s intelligence to create a new way of operating, driven by the digital marketplace and the IoT – what Rolls-Royce Marine is calling the “Uber of the sea”. Major global retail companies such as Alibaba and Amazon may very well be interested in controlling their own worldwide distribution in future. “Digitalisation brings with it disruptive change,” said Levander. 

Like many other aspects of modern manufacturing, the prevailing trend in shipping sees it increasingly viewed as an integrated part of global supply chains. The same converging technologies driving innovation in other areas are also at play in shipping, such as object detection, the internet of things, satellite communications, big data, autonomous and robotics developments and cloud infrastructure.

Levander is keen to stress the future-proof aspect of the Electric Blue concept ship.

“It’s not like buying an existing ship and then facing competition in 10 years time from a fully autonomous vessel,” he said. “Here you can have it in your own. If you invest today, you know that you can adapt to those markets with smaller changes. This is like future-proof.

“You have a very efficient cargo-carrying machine that you can adapt to any changes in the future. That’s the idea. And that we hope could also interest the ship owners and the other players in the market to start investing in new tonnage. We need new tonnage that is more environmentally friendly and efficient in the market.”

“It’s about modularity and really ensuring the total life of the vessel, that it will be efficient and that the ship can evolve with the market. Because we don’t know what the fuel prices are going to be, what the environmental regulations will be in the future or what the market will look like, what type of trade patterns there’ll be. You need a ship that can evolve with time and with the different technologies.”

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