Rolls-Royce has long been a data-driven business. We have been conducting remote monitoring operations on our Trent series of aircraft engines since 1995. The latest jets contain between 130 and 200 sensors, the data from which is sampled 40,000 times per second and then shipped back to our headquarters in Derby, UK where they are processed and analysed.
In other words, this technology is happening today. Our aerospace engines are assets that are worked hard like no others, so real-time health monitoring is an essential aspect of what we do in that sector. Equally, all that data, following advanced analytics, is fed through to our engine design using techniques such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD).
But we are moving into a new era. The internet of things means that there will be as many as 50 billion connected devices by 2020. As a company we believe this to be the case, 100 per cent. In fact, we have already started connecting any number of devices. We could connect every bolt in one of our engines if we wanted!
Of course, there are limitations. One of the biggest is the communications, which are obviously a key factor in this kind of technology. You need a very solid communications pipe for any kind of remote operation. However, these communications are improving all the time.
Inevitably, the increasing ability to perform not only monitoring but also maintenance and other tasks remotely is going to mean more automation. And, as with all forms of automation, this will inevitably mean de-manning to a greater or lesser degree. Ultimately, of course, the end result is likely to be unmanned vessels.
In certain areas, remotely-operated drones and robots are already playing a significant role. For instance, in areas such as defence and repair work on nuclear sites, advanced robotics are playing a major role because they can do things and go to places for lengths of time that are simply impossible for humans.
So why should marine be any different? Why should vessels not be unmanned? The answer is that they will be and the simple reason is the sheer economic advantage that going unmanned can offer by eliminating the human factors.
It is my belief that the first shipping company that adopts unmanned operations on any major scale will have such a competitive advantage by doing so that it will start a snowball effect that forces its competitors to fall into line.
Mankind has always chased ever-greater productivity. I see this technology in exactly the same way and believe that if shipping can find a way to run efficiently without crews, it will. For an example, you do not need to look any further than the automotive industry, which has progressively been pushing down the number of people who are needed to manufacture each car by an order of magnitude. There is no reason to think that the marine industry will be any different in that respect.
Of course, it will not happen overnight. The journey to unmanned ships is a step-by-step one. However, we are already on our way there.