The Futurenauts: Oskar Levander

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce

Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce

As part of our mission to chart shipping and maritime’s technology-enabled future, we’re profiling some of the people shaping that future. As VP for Innovation, Engineering and Technology, Marine at Rolls-Royce Oskar Levander has become synonymous with the subject of unmanned ships, since Rolls-Royce went public with its thinking and development around remote control and autonomy.

But in practice Oskar’s job is far more diverse. Responsible for making sure the company is innovating and leading the maritime industry is a big brief and requires him to have not only an acute understanding of emerging technologies, but also an in-depth understanding of what’s relevant and holds value for customers. Unmanned ships might well be where the industry is going, but getting there is going to be an interesting ride. I managed to catch up with a very busy Oskar and asked him about his vision for the industry, and whether being Mr Unmanned Ships ever gets a bit wearing.

If anyone qualifies as a Futurenaut it’s Oskar, so I’m delighted to have him officially become one of ours. Here’s what he told us.

Futurenautics: We’re looking at fuels this issue. What’s your view of the next 5-10 years in the maritime industry in terms of fuel mix and adoption? Will we finally see the spike in LNG everyone’s been promising? Is the short-term future hybrid power? Is DNV GL’s ReVolt a precursor to major battery power improvements? And with projections claiming HFO remains the lion’s share of the market up to 2030, should we be more actively investigating the emissions mitigating effects of catalysts and nano-additives?

Oskar Levander: I think that what we’ll be seeing is a far more diverse fuel palette. At the moment we are seeing about 90 per cent HFO and 10 per cent diesel with a little LNG, but that will grow. When we look at fuel mix there are two perspectives. From the perspective of the oil company what is important is how much is sold, and looking at the ships already ordered and built HFO will remain the largest. However, there is also the equipment supplier’s perspective which is more focussed on what ships are being ordered, and what newbuilds are electing for. Here we see that LNG comprises a bigger part. But it is still going to take some time. In terms of a spike, it takes time to open up a new market and the low oil price is not favouring LNG in the same way it did a year ago. But we have seen the first cruise ship orders and that’s significant.

Hybrid ships are going to be important, but they still need fuel. In the next 5-10 years hybrid battery is probably not feasible for deep-sea vessels, but for ferries and tugs it could be, we have all-electric already. Development is moving very rapidly and that will make battery more interesting for more ship applications. In terms of additives and catalysts, I’m not an expert on those but I haven’t seen anything that suggests they are going to make a major impact.

The 10 year horizon is HFO, MGO and LNG supplemented by other technologies in hybrid applications.

Futurenautics: Rolls-Royce has been involved in wind projects – what shape has that involvement taken, and what’s the objective?

Oskar Levander: We have been involved with B9 Shipping and other windpower solutions and I do see it coming. The problem is that the payback time is key, and that’s very dependent on oil prices. At 2 years, it is of very high interest, but once you get over 4 years, the interest will drop. I think that actual sailing vessels will be a niche market, but auxiliary wind power as an energy saving device might become more popular when oil prices go up.

However, the feasibility depends a lot on the ship type and operating route. Tankers or bulkers that have the deck space to mount Flettner rotors could reduce their annual fuel consumption by 10 to 30 per cent. In a good sidewind it’s very attractive. In a good headwind, not so much.

What is going to fundamentally change shipping is unmanned ships. That’s where we get the chance to redefine what a ship is.

15796928307_9c28933a18_oFuturenautics: Your job is to keep Rolls-Royce innovating in the right direction. How do you identify the relevant trends and technologies and to what extent do you run up against resistance to new ideas internally?

Oskar Levander: It can sometime be a challenge to sell things internally, but that is part of the job. I rely a lot on my innovation and concept development team – the Blue Ocean team – to take new technology and apply it in marine concepts and look at it from the customer perspective. What will it mean? Does it make sense? These are very skilled people who understand our customers and are in dialogue with them all the time. So if we believe that something is relevant then I don’t wait for everyone to be onboard with it. I think you need to have the confidence in your team’s expertise to go forward without needing everyone’s approval. Fortunately Rolls-Royce’s culture supports that innovative attitude and it believes in the importance of thought-leadership in an industry.

Futurenautics: Futurenautics first predicted autonomous ships were inevitable in late 2013, Rolls-Royce began describing its development around autonomy in early 2014 and the reactions at first were broadly negative. In the intervening time attitudes have altered significantly and discussions around unmanned vessels have become far more mainstream. What has been more of a surprise – the strength of reaction initially, or the speed with which the concept is becoming accepted?

Oskar Levander: It was not so much a surprise in the beginning that we created a reaction, we expected that. If I go out with a new topic and everyone agrees with me then I’m too late. But what has been surprising is how quickly the concept has gained acceptance and momentum. Probably the biggest surprise has been the Flag States and the range of many different stakeholders who have encouraged us to go forward. I’m really happy to have had such encouragement and engagement from them, which wasn’t what we initially expected.

Lossi-1Futurenautics: There appears to be a widespread difficulty in the industry in understanding the concept of autonomy – i.e. a ship which is intelligent enough to actually make decisions for itself, as opposed to one which is under remote control. At Rolls-Royce you’re talking about autonomy in the deep sea, and remote control closer to port and in port. Do you think that talking about remote control at all is contributing to the confusion?

Oskar Levander: It’s all about the application and the timeframe. The first ships to be unmanned are likely to be local vessels because of the regulations, and they are likely to be smaller. Smaller vessels are more suited for remote control than bigger coastal cargo vessels, so as time goes on and we begin to introduce unmanned cargo ships we will see more autonomous operation begin.

It’s also important to realise that remote control will be important to begin with from a legal point of view. There will be a human being in charge. She/he may be in charge of a lot of ships under her/his supervision, but legally there is someone responsible.

As to confusion, I don’t think that’s an issue, I don’t want to paint black and white only one right solution. The industry needs to decide what is most relevant for different applications. As long as key stakeholders understand what’s possible technologically they can guide what is desirable.

For the good of the shipping business we need global rules, but IMO needs to move more quickly. Probably the most damaging thing is uncertainty.

Futurenautics: Unmanned or crewless are emotive terms. Are they obscuring the really important trend which is systems automation, integration and technology platform convergence?

Oskar Levander: Both yes and no. The biggest technological trend is ship intelligence that enables unmanned operation. But there will be intermediate steps like automatic and remote operation and robotisation of tasks at a ship level. But at the same time what is going to fundamentally change shipping – like the advent of steam, diesel and containerisation – is unmanned ships. That is where we get the chance to redefine what a ship is, what it looks like, how it operates, how it’s designed and make a big impact on how efficient it is.

Futurenautics: Part of the changes that autonomy will drive are around the way that ships are designed and maintained. What’s your view of how that could develop, and could that impact the speculation in ships as asset plays which is contributing to overcapacity?

Oskar Levander: As I’ve outlined before I see that we could move to a situation where shipyards instead of building a prototype and copying it could, in future, use a parametric model and have variable steel, but standard systems on board. Then you could vary the hull make it longer or wider, but more importantly the systems on board would be standard, monitored and validated. Using the data from those systems we could make iterative improvements to the ships and their systems. Big Data will be an enabler of that. As to whether that will change the way shipping works, and the way assets are invested, I don’t know.

Cyber security is a big area today. There are a lot of ships that don’t have the level of IT security they need and don’t always understand what the risks are

Futurenautics: As we pull more shipboard systems online we are accessing efficiencies in operations and potentially improvements in safety too. But there are also downside risks to be managed. Cyber security is essential for the maritime industry to move safely into its future – what responsibilities do companies like Rolls-Royce have to customers to educate and support them in this transition?

Oskar Levander: This is a big area today. There are lots of ships which don’t have the level of IT security that they need and don’t always understand what the risks are. There is this idea still around that if something stops working they can always continue manually, but that underestimates the scale of the risks.

Everyone has a responsibility to work on this together to try and protect the industry. We are fortunate at Rolls-Royce to have a lot of experience on the aeronautical side as we are maintaining our Trent and other gas turbine engines and streaming important and sensitive data. We have some of the best expertise in the world on how to keep that secure and we’re utilising that on the marine side, bringing that in and using it to our customers’ advantage.

I think we have a responsibility to ensure our systems are secure and help our customers to do the same, but the extent to which we can do that varies. For example if we are delivering a whole system, we can, and we expect, to work with a customer to deliver IT security for the whole ship. But if we’re just delivering a propeller, then that’s a different thing, we can’t be of so much assistance. It is an area that we are being asked about increasingly, by customers and also other stakeholders. It’s only going to become more important.

15816971710_a1ccd450e2_oFuturenautics: What will be the next major technology disruption in shipping? Who will it most affect?

OL: As I said, the biggest disruption will be unmanned operation, but in the shorter term I think probably battery power, initially as a hybrid application and in segments like short route ferries and offshore. Then longer term in cargo ships.

Futurenautics: Big Data is being identified as an accelerating trend in maritime, how important will Big Data and data and analytics competencies become for the industry, and when?

Oskar Levander: Big Data is starting to become crucial now. I don’t like the term Big Data because data on its own doesn’t have value. What is important is to identify what data is going to bring value to the ship operator. That could be an optimisation tool to increase revenue, or control costs, it could be an equipment monitoring tool that allows condition based maintenance, or a variety of other things.

Big Data is an enabler of smart ship intelligence. The capability of logging data and getting that on and off the ship is very important, and we’re going to see a big increase in this area as more and more offerings and products are based around analysing that data and bringing value.

Do ship operators need to have analytics and data competencies in their own companies? That depends on the operators. If it’s a quite small owner then perhaps not, but if it’s a big ship manager or operator then yes, maybe it does.

Futurenautics: You’ve ended up as the public face of autonomous ships, possibly the most controversial subject in the industry. Your role is actually far, far wider than that. Is it frustrating sometimes? Or, as DNV GL’s Tor Svensen said, does change start with conversation, which makes it a key part of your job?

Oskar Levander: No, I don’t mind being the face of autonomous ships. Once I was Mr LNG, now I’m Mr Unmanned Ships. Actually it enables you to get into a lot of places because people are really interested to understand what is happening and what you’re doing, and it give us an opportunity to talk about this.

Maybe I don’t mind because I really believe in the subject and the promise of unmanned ships. It means I’m very happy to be associated with the subject and given the chance to talk about it and promote it.

Futurenautics: DNV GL’s The Future of Shipping report outlines a scenario where States, charterers and NGOs begin to take a larger role in regulating international shipping, developing and enforcing more rigorous standards and rendering IMO obsolete by mid‐century. What’s your reaction to that view?

Oskar Levander: It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s desirable. Ship operators want global rules because otherwise it makes it very hard to operate globally. For the good of the shipping business we need global rules, but IMO needs to move more quickly.
Probably the most damaging thing is uncertainty. The ballast water and emission regulations were agreed and then challenged afterwards, that’s not good for anyone. It means that operators don’t know whether or not to make the investment and equipment suppliers don’t know whether or not to develop the technology.

Global rules are important and they need to be enforced, they also need to be more goal-based. Otherwise I think that we may see innovations happening outside the rules, in order to demonstrate to IMO that something needs to change. To avoid that IMO needs to follow the developments, react faster and fall into line much more quickly.

When it comes to innovation you don’t want to limit yourself, it’s very important to utilise all the people that you have, and that’s one of our real strengths at Rolls-Royce.

Futurenautics: One of the greatest challenges for incumbent companies is disrupting themselves before someone else does. The options are to acquire disruptive companies and let them innovate at arm’s length, or to set up Skunk Works like Lockheed Martin and BMW have. How does Rolls-Royce approach the problem, and why?

Oskar Levander: In many ways I don’t have a single way of doing it. When it comes to innovation quantity brings quality. The more ideas that you produce the more likely that you are going to find the ones which have real value. Of course you don’t want to spread yourself too thinly, but fortunately at Rolls-Royce we have a lot of mass and we use it.

We do have a ‘Skunk Works’ at the propulsion research and development labs and they’re bringing in a range of innovative solutions like the carbon thrusters and the magnetic thrusters. The Blue Ocean team as I mentioned is always focussed on investigating emerging technologies from the customer’s perspective, and we’ve also acquired companies which help us, for example, with our electrical research and development.

So, it really is a mixture of approaches, but at the heart is an innovation culture within Rolls-Royce. We have 55,000 brains in our organisation and we try and foster a culture where everyone innovates. We have an innovation portal and we host challenges around emerging technologies that everyone takes part in. It’s a great thing and we even use it with customers too. The ideas aren’t always related directly to Rolls-Royce offerings, but they encourage broader thinking and often lead to other big ideas internally.

When it comes to innovation you don’t want to limit yourself, it’s very important to utilise all the people that you have, and that’s one of our real strengths at Rolls-Royce.

Rolls-Royce's Ship Intelligence concept

Rolls-Royce’s Ship Intelligence concept

Futurenautics: 3D printing is increasingly shaping up to be a highly disruptive force impacting both volumes and trade flows. Rolls-Royce is closely involved with the technology on the aviation side, how do you foresee it affecting how we design and manufacture components and ships themselves?

Oskar Levander: Yes, 3D printing is coming to marine. I don’t think we’ll be 3D printing large ships soon, but at the smaller boat level it gets much more interesting. On the service side where we need to manufacture spare parts then rather than have a lot of inventory in a warehouse why not have 3D printers in ports and just print the part when and where it’s needed? You can email or download the digital file. I don’t see that there’s an economic argument for 3D printing big steel parts, but 3D printing does utilise different materials, so it may be that it leads to shipping looking at a broader range of other materials.

We could also see more 3D printers on ships so that parts can be printed on board. At the moment we’re limited as to how we can be sure the part is up to specification, but the concept as a whole is very appealing. I do see that we will quickly find we’re 3D printing more and more things.

Futurenautics: What was the last piece of technology—consumer, industrial or professional—which made you say “Wow!”?

Oskar Levander: I saw recently that a young boy who’s had his own hands amputated had undergone an operation which surgically attached two donor hands. The hands are functioning like any normal hands and will grow with the boy as he grows. That made me say, ‘Wow!’ The 3D printing of human organs is also a wow for me. And I like the idea that you will be able to design your own car and have it 3D printed. That’s really interesting.

Oskar Levander is the VP Innovation, Engineering & Technology – Marine for Rolls-Royce. Visit them at

 Images courtesy © Rolls-Royce

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Futurenautics.

Issue 8 | Fuels

Download the full July 2015 issue free of charge as a PDF, read online and subcribe

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