Autonomous ship deploying drones

Rolls-Royce reveals plans for entirely autonomous naval ship

Image credit: Rolls-Royce

The comparatively small ship will be equipped with AI technology and advanced propulsion technology, and could complete tasks such as sea mine detection and fleet screening.

While larger manned ships are likely to continue to be used for complex missions, Rolls-Royce is banking on a move from an entirely human-operated to mixed fleet composition in the world’s largest military forces, with some autonomous vessels performing certain tasks.

The ship will be 60m long, and will be capable of operating without any human assistance whatsoever for up to 100 days. With a top speed of 25 knots, it has an unmanned range of 3500 nautical miles.

It will be extensively equipped with sensors, and “advanced propulsion” technology. Its electrical propellers will be powered by diesel or gas engines – typically for a Rolls-Royce vessel, and it will have solar panels installed for standby power use.

Rolls-Royce states that it will optimise the reliability of its power and propulsion systems to reduce the possibility of maintenance issues arising which require human intervention. This will involve the integration of machine learning-enabled predictive systems.

There is no suggestion that the autonomous vessel would be used for direct combat, although it will tackle other naval tasks around patrol routes, and undertake surveillance tasks. It could detect sea mines and complete fleet screening duties, and, with the assistance of supplementary drones, complete other, more complex missions.

“Rolls-Royce is seeing interest from major navies in autonomous, rather than remote-controlled ships,” said Benjamin Thorp, General Manager Naval Electrics, Automation and Control at Rolls-Royce. “Such ships offer a way to deliver increased operational capability, reduce the risk to crew and cut both operating and build costs.”

“Over the next 10 years or so, Rolls-Royce expects to see the introduction of medium sized unmanned platforms, particularly in leading navies, as the concept of mixed manned and unmanned fleets develop,” said Thorp.

In a statement, the company said that it is conducting “significant analysis of potential cyber risks” for the vessel, in order to secure the ship against potentially disastrous hacking attempts.

Rolls-Royce is not the first organisation to announce that it is working to create autonomous ships. The ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel project, funded by DARPA, has been underway since 2010. The project could culminate with the development of an autonomous naval vessel which can perform missions for the US Navy, such as tracking enemy submarines.

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