Intel, Rolls Royce and the Voyage to Autonomous Shipping

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 17, 2018

Over the past decade or so, the IT industry has been in the thrall of what might be called the iPhone Effect, where vendors promote new technologies to consumers first, no matter how well or badly suited they are to consumer and home use cases. The strategy makes a certain sense given the impact Apple’s iPhone made—creating an essentially new market for web-enabled apps and content that eventually forced businesses to contend with mobility-obsessed employees via Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives and other efforts.

The problem is that other promising technologies have had serious problems in trying to catch the iPhone’s lightning in a bottle. So, strategies centering on consumer-focused products, like IoT (through Smart Home devices and services) and virtual reality (for home entertainment), have often faltered, sullying the reputations of the technologies and players involved. Some others—self-driving consumer cars are a good example—are growing in fits and starts, with vendors vying for position in markets that are years away from being commercially sustainable.

On the other hand, business-focused solutions leveraging many of these same technologies are proceeding apace. Industry-specific IoT and VR solutions are readily available, and autonomous systems for commercial transportation are evolving quickly. Why is that the case? Partly because enterprises are willing to invest in a new technology when they believe it can offer significant, even profound business benefits.

A good example is this week’s announcement from Intel and Rolls-Royce concerning the latter’s Ship Intelligence platforms and Intelligent Awareness System solutions for commercial shipping. The solution uses AI-enabled sensor-fusion and decision-making capabilities powered by Intel’s Xeon and 3D NAND-technologies to increase the intelligence, efficiency and safety of commercial ships. The two companies also believe that the Intelligent Awareness System will provide the foundation for future autonomous shipping systems.

Let’s consider this further.

Global shipping powers world trade

Saying the world is far smaller than it used to be is a cliché, but one based on practical experience. Readily available transportation means that you can literally leave today and arrive in some of the world’s remotest regions tomorrow. The ability to shift large scale manufacturing to low cost producers regardless of their location has fundamentally changed the ways that goods are made and consumed. The Internet and wireless communications have opened up global markets in once inconceivable ways.

But getting those products to customers is a whole other thing. While a large majority of goods may be produced in Asia, a small fraction is consumed locally. In order to reach lucrative international markets, manufacturers rely on a world shipping fleet consisting of over 100,000 vessels. In fact, that international fleet supports about 90% of world trade, making it vital to countless businesses, markets and economies.

The ships in those fleets are big and getting much, much bigger as shipping companies and their customers look for ways to maximize supply chain efficiencies and minimize costs. That makes perfect sense, but it also means that when severe or catastrophic mistakes and accidents occur—and they have, to the tune of over 100 per year over the past decade—related events can be immensely damaging in economic, human and environmental terms.

Rolls-Royce meets Intel

Rolls-Royce is obviously best known for its iconic automobiles, but the fact is that the company is also a leading vendor in civil and defense aerospace, commercial power systems and marine products. In fact, Rolls-Royce navigation and other equipment are used in about a quarter of the world fleet’s 100,000 vessels.

The company’s Ship Intelligence platform leverages Intel Xeon-based systems that also use Intel 3D NAND for onboard data storage and in on-land data centers. It is also evaluating Intel Optane SSDs for future use and Intel FPGAs to accelerate algorithm training using data collected in transit.

The volume of information involved is formidable—up to 1TB of compressed data—collected daily from lidar, radar, thermal cameras, HD cameras, satellite data and weather forecasts. But that information enables the vessels and their crews to be more aware of their surroundings and improve safety by alerting them to objects and other potential dangers several kilometers away.

Autonomous guidance and piloting require even more sophisticated tools and solutions that are under development . Rolls-Royce demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel (in Copenhagen harbor) last year. Plus, the company has incorporated situation monitoring technologies that detect potential obstacles in its Intelligence Awareness System. Rolls-Royce believes it is on track to begin deploying autonomous fleets with Intel-based system components by 2025.

Final analysis

Though billions of dollars are being invested in autonomous vehicles of every kind and size, it seems likely that industrial applications will appear far faster and more successfully than consumer products. Those include the new solutions announced this week by Rolls-Royce and Intel. The companies are well suited in numerous ways, including technologically and strategically. In addition, both have the ambition and reach necessary to develop and deploy truly global solutions.

It should also be noted that the stakes for improving the efficiency and safety of world shipping and trade couldn’t be higher. Hundreds of billions of dollars in goods are at stake at the same time that natural risks, including extreme weather events, are on the rise. Over time, autonomous shipping systems are likely to evolve from something companies would like to have into solutions they need to use.

Should that come to pass, Intel and Rolls-Royce will have the goods and services necessary to secure future generations of autonomous shipping.

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