Interview: Wärtsilä Voyage's Hendrik Bußhoff on Vessel Autonomy

Inland container barge at the Port of Rotterdam (file image)

Published Jan 9, 2022 4:44 PM by Paul Benecki

Autonomous vessels are already in limited use in the defense sector, and several research and survey operators have announced plans for niche civilian applications, but the technology has met with some skepticism in commercial shipping. However, it may be coming sooner than some might expect - starting with inland vessels. Wärtsilä Voyage's decision-support technology is already assisting navigation in challenging waterways on the Great Lakes, and the company is planning to deploy a fully autonomous inland vessel soon with an upcoming project for the Port of Rotterdam

To learn more about the commercial viability of vessel autonomy today, TME spoke recently with Hendrik Bußhoff, Head of Product - Autonomous Systems at Wärtsilä Voyage.

TME: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and about how you came to the maritime industry?

Well, this is a bit of a cliche, but it started as a childhood dream. I'm a mariner by trade, and at some point, I realized that if you want to make a difference, then you actually need control over a fleet of ships. That was the point when I went to shore and realized that it's cool enough to have control over a fleet of ships, but if you want to make a difference, you actually have to go to a place where the technology for the ships is built. That's what brought me to Wärtsilä, where I am now head of product for autonomous systems. It's a super exciting field, which I think is going to be as transformational as the transition from the age of steam.

TME: It's great to hear that an experienced mariner is developing the technology for the next generation of shipping. Can you tell our readers a bit about the project at the Port of Rotterdam?

The Port of Rotterdam approached Wärtsilä and asked for our help in coming up with a real solution for a real economic problem. That is great, because it creates real focus if you have a problem to solve.

The port’s goal is to handle a part of its terminal-to-terminal container movements using autonomous barges. Rotterdam is located within a large city, and using truck drayage for moves between terminals adds to street traffic congestion. Autonomous trucking is a possibility, but it still takes up valuable space on shore. We’re going to test out a battery-electric, autonomous barge to take advantage of unused space on the water side.

TME: How far will this route go?

We’ll start with a point-to-point “conveyor belt” service between terminals. Once that works, it is entirely plausible to add more points within the port. And if you zoom out on the chart, the Port of Duisburg - which is a giant inland port - is somewhat of an extension of the Port of Rotterdam.

TME: What kind of infrastructure would that require?

The goal is to keep modifications to the infrastructure as minimal as possible. This is why our design will use containerized batteries: the unit that is already standardized and can be handled by existing equipment. If you think of a marine terminal, what you want to see on the quayside is a cargo crane, because it's a very precious place for cargo activity. What you don't want there is a charging station that supports a single vessel. With a containerized battery, the charging station can be somewhere else.

The containerized design also means that the power source could be changed later without modifying the vessel. Today it's a battery container, but tomorrow it could be a fuel cell container, for example.

TME: Will these barges compete with manned inland vessels?

The competition for our unmanned ship is actually not the manned ship - it's the truck. Trucking has taken a large share of the cargo from railroads and inland shipping over the past 50 years, and this is a way to bring that cargo volume back aboard a ship, which is the most energy-efficient form of transport.

TME: Inland vessels tend to be on the smaller side – is that an advantage for developing new designs?

Yes, it is. Is it possible to have a Panamax container ship running on fuel cells tomorrow? Maybe technically, but commercially it's not possible. But if you start with smaller ships, it becomes a lot more credible because the technical barriers are comparatively low and it makes complete commercial sense.

TME: Looking ahead, what are your thoughts on how vessel autonomy will unfold?

I think it's going to be an uphill battle. Not technologically, but from a regulatory perspective and a societal perspective. This is nothing specific to shipping, but as a society, we have these expectations that whenever a system is highly automated, it has to be far safer than anything human. And that's a tough challenge. We should do everything to try to improve upon safety, but are we going to drive the accident rate to zero? No. If we make this a precondition for everything automated, then it's simply not going to take off. So, I think there's a lot of expectation management and messaging to be done.

TME: Where do you think that hesitancy stems from?

As an industry, we have professionally trained ourselves into being pessimists. Whenever someone tries to do something, the first thing we want to do is a risk assessment. And there are good reasons for that – but where is the guy who calls for an opportunity assessment? That guy isn't there.

I think that a part of the social challenge is also about vested interests and organizational inertia. There are few industries as globalized as shipping, and there are so many people at the table with valid interests in the industry.

TME: What will this mean for seafarers?

That also includes seafarers, but we should not think of it as if they won’t be needed any more.

The industry will inevitably move more and more towards autonomy, but we have to make sure that those affected don’t have economic problems. Specialized knowledge gained from professional seafaring experience will still be very valuable, because it is not going to be the software developers solving the everyday challenges. There is a great opportunity to bring that knowledge to the table and have this discussion and say, “how do we make this technological shift sensitively and sensibly together so that there is something in this for everybody?”