ESA and Rolls-Royce sign deal to bring space tech to autonomous ships

1 Dec 2017

Image: Avigator Thailand/Shutterstock

In the open seas, autonomous technology can thrive with a little help from some ESA space technologies.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it has signed a memorandum of intent with Rolls-Royce to see how the former can introduce technologies developed for space into autonomous and remote-controlled ships.

While autonomous cars and trucks require quite a lot of work to make sure they can navigate safely on compacted roads, cargo ships can potentially have a bit more leeway, given the vastness of the world’s oceans.

In this new deal, the pair plan to study the applications of various space assets to autonomous shipping, such as satellite-based positioning, better situational awareness using Earth observation data, and satellite communication services for improved on-board connectivity.

ESA has already been working on its Satellite for 5G initiative, which will use the latest generation of telecommunications to keep the autonomous ships connected, both from land and from space.

It is within the transport sector, ESA said, that it aims to support the technological and supply chain evolutions that are required to weave together terrestrial and space services.

Autodocking system

An auto-docking system automates the first and last phases of the crossing right up to the quay. Image: Rolls-Royce

Create ‘digital twins’

The pair will also work on projects to harness big data by gathering information from sensors on board the ship to create ‘digital twins’.

A digital twin is an artificially intelligent copy of a ship, including its systems. It synthesises the information available about the ship in a hologram and can be viewed either in virtual reality or augmented reality.

ESA director general Jan Woerner said of the deal between the two: “Space technologies provide tangible benefits for the citizens of Europe. Partnerships, such as this one with Rolls-Royce, take solutions originally developed for the unique challenges of the space environment and bring them down to Earth.”

Rolls-Royce is one of the biggest players in the fledgling autonomous shipping sector, and aims to have a trial run of its first remotely controlled vessels – with a limited crew – by the end of the decade.

It then hopes to have its first autonomous, uncrewed ship travelling across the oceans by 2035.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic