More Than Meets the Eye

Exponential advances in autonomous operation are enhancing maritime safety, efficiency and sustainability.

The Sharktech autonomous boat, developed by Sea Machines and shipbuilder Metal Shark (file image courtesy Sea Machines)

Published Jan 3, 2020 1:17 PM by Sean M. Holt

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2019 edition.)

History was made in December 2018 when the Suomenlinna II was remotely piloted in an assigned testing area in Finland’s capital port. Two nautical miles away, at a shore-based control center in Helsinki, Captain Lasse Heinonen wirelessly operated the ice-class passenger ferry with visual and haptic situational awareness, from multiple angles, using only the touchscreen and joystick of an ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control. One short transit for a vessel, one giant waypoint for autonomous shipping!

Speaking after the voyage, Heinonen noted, “The progress we have made with the remote trial has been remarkable. I believe we are on the right track to exploring further possibilities of this technology as we move forward.”

No Longer Science Fiction

Commercial-grade autonomous vessels are no longer science fiction. They are now science fact. Another first mover in the sector, the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) and its various stakeholders, has established two autonomous test areas within Norway’s fjords. The goal is to facilitate testing of new concepts and full-scale programs related to autonomous shipping.  China, too, has begun construction of a similar testing bed in Zhuhai, Guangdong.

Classification societies have recognized the upcoming autonomy tsunami and have positioned themselves accordingly. DNV GL, for example, has already published guidelines for “Autonomous and Remotely Operated Ships.” Although there are presently no IMO regulations for autonomous operations, an initial “scoping” exercise to review the status of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) has begun through IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee with the following designated degrees of autonomy:

  • Degree One – Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
  • Degree Two – Remotely controlled ship with seafarers onboard: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and operate the shipboard systems and functions.
  • Degree Three – Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location.
  • Degree Four – Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

Like the evolution of self-driving cars, factors such as reducing human error, increasing operational efficiency and enhancing environmental sustainability are empowering the autonomous vessel revolution. According to global insurance provider Allianz, 75 percent of all marine liability losses in 2016 were due to human error. The International Chamber of Shipping says global demand for maritime transport has grown by 30 percent over the past decade with more than 10 billion tons of cargo now being transported by sea every year. 

Those statistics represent a significant market opportunity to increase efficiencies while drastically reducing human error and marine pollutants.

To dig deeper into the evolution of autonomous ships, we spoke with three companies that are leading the way.

Situational Awareness

Swedish/Swiss giant ABB is a leading provider of robotics and industrial automation. Long familiar to mariners, ABB became a household name when one of its robotic arms made a cameo in Marvel’s Ironman 3.

Having recently received Approval in Principle from Lloyd’s Register, the ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control system that guided the Suomenlinna II now includes the precision and redundancy of dynamic positioning 2 (DP 2). When married to ABB’s Marine Pilot Vision, superior situational awareness is achieved by taking advantage of digital twin technology in real-time. Such integrations are how ABB enhances vessel command execution and enables operators to focus not just on maneuvering safely but on the vessel’s entire operating profile.

Vegard Saeterlid, Product Manager for ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control, explains how autonomous operations mandate a “sense-decide-act” cycle in his article, “Paving the Way Toward Autonomous Shipping.” ABB’s platform claims to fully satisfy current requirements by providing sensing through Marine Pilot Vision. The watch officer then decides on a course of action that is carried out through Marine Pilot Control.

“Autonomous does not mean unmanned,” explains Juha Koskela, Managing Director of ABB Marine & Ports. “As vessels become more electric, digital and connected than ever before, ABB is able to equip seafarers with existing solutions that augment their skillsets. In this way, we are enhancing the overall safety of marine operations.”

“Truck to Truck” Autonomy

Taking its name from IMO’s MASS terminology, Norwegian-based Massterly is a joint venture between industry giants Kongsberg and Wilhelmsen aimed at enabling sustainable logistics through efficient autonomous vessels. Kongsberg, a recognized leader in industrial and vessel automation, will act as the technology developer while Wilhelmsen, a major logistics operator with 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet as customers, will facilitate global operations.

Massterly intends to compete with road transportation by offering a “truck to truck” autonomous solution, both on the vessel (autonomous container feeder vessel) and in port (autonomous trucks, container feeders and self-driving straddle carriers with automated vessel loading and discharging). Its guiding principle is simple: When it comes to safeguarding life, property and the environment, autonomous and remote control of vessel functions must have a level of safety equivalent to or better than the conventional operation of vessels.

The European Commission has mandated that 30 percent of all cargo transported more than 300 kilometers by truck be shipped by water or rail by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050. By utilizing fully-electric autonomous vessels such as the Yara Birkeland, along with the ASKO (ro-ro feeder vessel) and Seashuttle (container ship) projects, nearly 100,000 truckloads per year could be taken off the roads while reducing CO2 emissions by 10,000 tons per year.

As an added benefit, those living in the Norwegian fjords will gain greater reliability with sea transport compared to their complex roadway system. 

Norway’s largest grocery wholesaler, ASKO, has partnered with Massterly to develop zero-emission, door-to-door trailer transport with autonomous crossing of the fjords. This will be achieved in part through two fully-electric autonomous 16-trailer ro-ro feeder vessels, which are scheduled for delivery in 2022. 

And by the way, Massterly will soon be looking for captains to begin training and manning their Shore Control Centers.

Enhanced Visibility

On the other side of the pond is Boston-based Sea Machines. Founded in 2015 and bolstered by a recent $10 million Series-A funding round with Toyota AI Ventures, Sea Machines claims to have introduced the world’s first industrial-grade control system, providing autonomous and remote vessel control for workboats and other commercial vessels. It’s secured two major contracts that will prove critical for the advancement of autonomous vessels.

The first is with Maersk for Enhanced Situational Awareness. Featuring A.I.-enabled perception, sensor fusion (w/LiDAR, RADAR and cameras) and continuous traffic monitoring – technology quite similar to that of Tesla’s Advanced Driver Assistance System – the goal is reduced transit risk and improved operational predictability. The “Autonomous Technology & Advanced Perception” platform is designed to promote safety by enhancing visibility through advanced target-tracking. Maersk will install this system on newbuilds for its Winter Palace ice-class containerships.

“For this containership situational awareness program,” explains Maersk’s Senior Innovation Manager, Michael Rodey, “we aim to prove that the technology increases our safety, efficiency and reliability. Autonomous vessels are not an end goal for Maersk nor are unmanned vessels. What is of more interest is the technology along the journey and the value it brings.”

The second contract is with Ontario-based workboat manufacturer Hike Metal. Currently supplying new vessels to the Canadian Coast Guard, Hike is outfitting 27-foot RHIBs with the SM300 autonomous vessel control system for “operator-in-the-loop” search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. SM300 enables minimally manned and unmanned autonomous operations, able to respond to rescue events any time of day or night, even when crews are unavailable or restricted. 

Once installed, the platform capabilities include autonomous SAR capability, data-driven waypoint following, mission planning, collaborative vessel operations, remote vessel and payload control, and obstacle avoidance.

Life Savers?

Research by the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that self-driving cars could eliminate up to 94 percent of traffic fatalities caused by human error. In 2016, the number of people in the U.S. who died in traffic accidents was 37,461. And from an efficiency standpoint, self-driving trucks, once fully deployed, are estimated to save $6 billion annually on fuel in the U.S. alone.

Although these numbers pertain to a different modality than shipping, the fundamental principles are expected to carry over.

Intelligent solutions and vessel autonomy will not only change the face of international maritime transportation but will add unprecedented levels of safety, operational efficiency and environmental sustainability. Soon, highly sophisticated vessels will operate with limited-to-no human interface. Thanks to the incremental and exponential achievements made by technical leaders, we are now witnessing the rapid transformation from human to machine. – MarEx

Sean Holt is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the founder of www.InfinityXVR.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.