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Era of automated ships moves a step closer

19 July 2017 IHS Markit Maritime & Trade Expert

This story originally published on

A shift in the technological tectonic plates occurred on 20 June creating a ripple in the water when Rolls-Royce announced that the world's first remotely operated commercial vessel, the tug Svitzer Hermod, was tested in Copenhagen Harbour.

In a report reminiscent of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight, Svitzer Hermod, captained from an operator stationed in a remote control centre at Svitzer's headquarters, set sail completing a 360 degree turn before travelling to Svitzer's offices and docking again.

According to Rolls-Royce's general manager, remote and autonomous solutions, Iiro Lindborg, "The vessel used different technologies for connectivity, including 3G and 4G mobile networks, wifi and satellite communications with the Link system deciding which communications system was appropriate at the time."

In addition the system used similar cyber-security methods to government security including advanced encryption and firewalls to prevent hackers taking over the vessel, although Lindborg also said that the system included an intrusion detection system that will alert crew if there is a hacker present in the system and the crew, in this instance, would have taken control of the vessel.

Technologically the innovation within Svitzer Hermod is not new and although the event is a watershed moment in the development of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) the technology is largely already available for this event to take place. In Norway the two latest projects will have a greater impact as they will operate entirely autonomously by 2019.

Although Kongsberg remained unmoved by the launch of Svitzer Hermod, having worked on automated vessels since the 1990's including underwater autonomous vessels (UAV's) and sea launch platforms for putting satellites into space, Kongsberg accepts that the mood in industry is changing and the Svitzer tug is evidence of that shift.

Peter Due, project manager strategic projects at Kongsberg Maritime, said, "The technology is more mature now and opinions are more mature, that is people's perception has changed, but we have been operating autonomous vessels for many years now."

Notwithstanding Kongsberg's long experience and even with the development of Hermod the challenges faced by the industry moving forward to a crewless and autonomous future are many as Kirsi Tikka, executive vice president global marine at ABS points out. "There would need to be considerable changes to class certification, flag state approvals, insurance, and international regulation as well as enhancements to operational technology and communications procedures before autonomous ships engage in deepsea voyages in large numbers."

However, those changes are expected to start with more localised shipping, broadening the appeal of MASS to deepsea vessels as the technology is proved under local jurisdictions, in the case of Hermod the jurisdiction was Denmark.

Nevertheless, there are challenges for autonomous ships and Tikka lists them succinctly, "Charterers and owners would need to have the motivation for the change and an agreement that this is the way they want to operate. There are signs that this is starting, but the industry is still facing a number of challenges in design, construction, and operation of vessels using today's technology and there needs to be a balance of focus on what is needed today for safe shipping and what technology will be adopted in the future."

Meeting those challenges head-on are the Norwegians with two projects, a emission-free container ship built by a fertiliser company, Yara, who want to build a fully autonomous ship called Yara Birkeland, in partnership with DNV GL and Kongsberg who are also in a four way partnership with Automated Ships and MSubs to develop a multipurpose offshore vessel called Hrönn.

The Hrönn project will develop an autonomous multi-purpose vessel 33 m long that will use diesel electric power and a Kongsberg supplied K-Power switchboard with two 500 kW propulsion motors. Travelling at 12 knots the vessel, with a fuel capacity of 30,000 litres, will have an operational endurance of up to 30 days.

Hrönn will be capable of operating autonomously or can be remotely controlled and will be equipped with unmanned underwater vehicles that can be launched, recovered and monitored via Hrönn. In addition the vessel will be capable of light cargo delivery, including cargo delivery to offshore installations, wind and fish farm support, firefighting support and touch down monitoring in cable and pipeline laying.

Automated Ships says the vessel, with its open deck design offers client greater flexibility in operations. The deck is capable of handling 2 tonnes m2 and is equipped with fittings for 20 and 40 ft containers as well as a moonpool for the installation of charterers' equipment, and another larger moonpool for ROV and AUV deployment.

Brett Phaneuf, managing director at Automated Ships, told Fairplay, "Originally we had a catamaran design, but we have now started working with a naval architect and we developed the design into a monohull as it was much easier to fit systems into the monohull and it is capable of carrying a heavier load, giving the vessel greater flexibility."

According to Phaneuf Hrönn will be launched by the end of 2018 and will start commercial operations in early 2019. Negotiations with the Fjellstrand yard, southeast of Bergen, are under way and the hope is that the vessel can be completed in time for six months of operational trials next year.

Bjørn-Johan Vartdal, Programme Director maritime transport at DNV GL, told Fairplay that the class society is working on class rules with both the Hrönn and Yara Birkeland projects so that the new rules will be tested and the group can see that they are "sensible".

Vartdal went on to say that the new autonomous vessels will require a new philosophy which includes redundancy and continuous condition monitoring with maintenance taking place while the vessels are in port.

"It is a similar principle to aviation's power-by-the-hour, we will need more of this with autonomous ships and it will be a challenge to develop condition monitoring as the companies providing the service will need a deep insight into the machinery so that they can see when a failure is developing."

In addition DNV GL is working with the bridge and navigation equipment supplier Kongsberg and the Norwegian Technical University to develop a collision avoidance system called Autosea. Information from many sensors needs to be fused into a single picture so that operator or the vessel can make a decision on the necessary action explained Vartdal.

"This is the real challenge as DNV GL is a safety assurance company and it is relatively easy to be certain about the safety of something that is static, but where it is moving and changing, that's a real challenge and we will need machine learning so that systems will be better. We need certain algorithms that we can check are safe and the system can learn more and check again for safety, this gives the system traceability in the process," said Vardal.

Autosea will be just as crucial for Yara Birkeland with its mission to deliver fertiliser cargo from the Yara factory in Porsgrunn southeast of Bergen to ports at Brevik and Larvik. Currently the production at the plant producers 40,000 container truck loads a year from the plant when the 70 m vessel is operational.

With a service speed of 6 kt Yara Birkeland will operate emissions free on electrical power within 12 miles of the Norwegian coast. Docking and cargo handling will all be automated and the cranes will be all electric so keeping emissions low.

Key sensors on the vessel will be camera's, radar, AIS, Lidar, and an infra-red cameras, the power will be provided by a 3.5-4 MWh battery pack that will drive two Azimuth thrusters with two tunnel thrusters for manoeuvring. A cargo capacity of up to 150 containers will mean that Yara will no longer need to operate any trucks in the transportation of its fertilizer, at least within Norway.

However, Vartdal points out that the final design of the vessel has yet to be completed although Fairplayunderstands from unconfirmed reports that some talks regarding the building of the vessel have taken place with the Kleven yard in Norway.

"This project is special because the end user is buying the technology that will meet their needs, it is still not certain who will operate the ship - Yara has never operated a ship before - and there is no intermediary so the company may need to develop the [sailing] skills in-house," said Vartland.

As suggested by Tikka, "the global shipping industry is capital intensive and there needs to a clear return on the investment or a regulatory driver for a change to autonomous ships in deep ocean trades. Rather than having a regulatory driver for this transition, it will require changes to regulatory regimes as well as developing and certifying the technology and connectivity required to maintain robust operations and communications under all circumstances."

However, Kongsberg's Peter Due believes that the technology that is used in UAV's and in its sea launch platforms will be just as effective in the development of Yara Birkeland and Hrönn. "Both vessels will initially be operated by crew, initially on a container bridge on board and then remotely, but that is because the legislation is not in place," explains Due.

Both Yara Birkeland and the Hrönn projects meet ABS's test for a clear return and both believe, along with DNV GL, that the development of the vessels for local operations will see the development of regulations for the MASS sector.

By 2019 the age of the commercial MASS may have begun, it will be a revolution in the supply chain that will be irreversible once the technology is unleashed and the effects of the technology will resonate for many years to come.



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