All aboard: Rolls-Royce, Intel embark on autonomous marine vessels

Personally, I like driving. There’s nothing like taking my dad’s three-speed, small-block 1981 Camaro out for a spin and feeling like I’m in full control of the vehicle. Apparently, some people aren’t as keen on this feeling, as autonomous vehicles are regularly making the news for good or bad.

While a handful of companies are focused on the intricacies involved with running autonomous vehicles on land, Rolls-Royce and Intel announced their partnership on an autonomous venture that takes to the seas.

With a goal to make commercial shipping safer and more efficient, the two companies will collaborate on designs for sophisticated intelligent shipping systems, and eventually will add full autonomy to that portfolio, they say. The partnership brings together Rolls-Royce’s expertise in advanced ship technology with Intel’s components and systems engineering.

The partnership will also expand upon Rolls-Royce's current portfolio of ship intelligence solutions, which currently includes Intelligent Asset Management and Remote & Autonomous Operations options, such as Intelligent Awareness, Energy Management and Health Management.

These videos offer more information about Rolls-Royce’s Ship Intelligence and Intelligent Awareness systems.

In a statement, Kevin Daffey, Rolls-Royce director, engineering & technology and ship intelligence, said, “We’re delighted to sign this agreement with Intel and look forward to working together on developing exciting new technologies and products, which will play a big part in enabling the safe operation of autonomous ships. This collaboration can help us to support ship owners in the automation of their navigation and operations, reducing the opportunity for human error and allowing crews to focus on more valuable tasks.

“Simply said, this project would not be possible without the leading-edge technology Intel brings to the table. Together, we’ll blend the best of the best, Intel and Rolls-Royce, to change the world of shipping.”

The new systems will have data center and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities as well as edge computing throughout, which will independently manage navigation, obstacle detection and communications.

The Intel components that will be embedded into these systems are dedicated to work load consolidation, edge computing, communication and storage. Among them are:

  • Intel Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology, which will provide engineers a flexible platform and the IP and components for edge operations like obstacle detection and navigation;
  • Intel Xeon Scalable Processors will manage complex modelling of ship functions, with future developments using learning models to support fully autonomous operations;
  • And Intel Optane DC Persistent Memory and Intel Optane SSD Intel 3D NAND SSD will ensure that the intelligence systems are reliable and responsive, and support extracting the maximum value from the data generated through real-time analysis and systems modeling.

The on-board Xeon Scalable processor-based servers turn ships into floating data centers, complete with AI inference and heavy computation capabilities, the companies say. Rolls-Royce’s Intelligent Awareness System processes data from lidar, radar, thermal cameras, HD cameras, satellite data and weather forecasts to use for its AI-powered sensor fusion and decision-making, allowing the vessel to be cognizant of its surroundings, identify obstacles and navigate around them. The data is stored on the Intel 3D NAND SSDs, which secure the information for training and analysis.

“Delivering these systems is all about processing─moving and storing huge volumes of data─and that is where Intel comes in,” said Lisa Spelman, vice president and general manager, Intel Xeon processors and data center marketing in the Data Center Group at Intel, in a statement. “Rolls-Royce is a key driver of innovation in the shipping industry, and together we are creating the foundation for safe shipping operations around the world.”

The hazardous environments that many cargo ships endure are reason enough for an autonomous solution in the industry. The endeavor is only beginning and it will be interesting to see where this goes and what autonomous vehicle will be in development next.