The Limits of Automation

Where do you draw the line between safety and efficiency?

marine electronics

Published Nov 9, 2016 9:33 PM by Paul Benecki

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2016 edition.)

      “Big Data,” “the Internet of things,” “the cloud” – all the latest catchphrases from enterprise IT are coming to the maritime industry. These terms describe a number of breakthroughs that are changing shoreside commerce, and they are beginning to change the way ships run too, day to day and delivery to demolition.

      All are made possible by fast, ubiquitous connections. Improved, satellite-based Internet helps the home office stay more connected with operations, allows technicians to troubleshoot problems from shore, helps crewmembers feel closer to home, and raises the possibility of hosting ship data on remote, third-party servers (the cloud), making it accessible from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Ship-wide wireless networks allow information to be collected automatically from hundreds of sensors, meaning ship performance can be logged in real time without requiring someone to type it into a computer.

      As with so many earlier innovations, from coal-fired boilers to GPS, shipping will change with the new technology. The debate centers on how fast and to what extent.

Crewless Ships?

Some believe that increasingly sophisticated and integrated marine electronics will culminate in the fully electronic ship – self-navigating, self-operating, autonomous, with remote monitoring staff on shore and no mariners aboard. 

      Rolls-Royce Marine is a leading proponent of this model. In a recently published paper, Esa Jokioinen, head of the firm's Blue Ocean team, declared that "autonomous shipping is the future of the maritime industry” and “smart ships will revolutionize the landscape of ship design and operations.” He suggests that, without a bridge team, vessels would not need accommodations, a deckhouse or crew support systems like HVAC, opening more space for cargo and reducing costs. Thanks in large part to the automotive industry, the sensors and controls for automation already exist, and Jokioinen thinks an autonomous ship could be operating in commercial trade by the end of the decade.

      He is not the only one who believes that the arrival of some form of autonomy is near. Lloyd's Register recently issued guidance on the classification of autonomous vessels with six levels of sophistication, ranging from a ship with data collation for human decision-making to a fully self-navigating ship without a crew.

Evolutionary, not Revolutionary

Captain Frank Coles, CEO of marine electronics firm Transas, does not share this vision – at least not all of it. “We would be going from seat-of-the-pants ship management to the space shuttle and bypassing all the stages in between,” he says. “We are much less technologically prepared for automation in comparison to the aviation industry, or to cars and trains, and those sectors operate on short trips in highly controlled environments.”

      Coles suggests that, aside from the technology, there are a number of problems with removing the crew of a merchant vessel. First, the marine environment is harsh, unpredictable, and hard on equipment. A crew can intervene in the event of a steering failure or loss of propulsion. Losing the capability to make repairs at sea means more redundancy would have to be built into the ship, adding cost.

      Second, engineers and deck crew carry out maintenance every day to keep the vessel running, from changing filters to greasing deck machinery. On tankers and bulkers, the crew often cleans tanks or holds during a ballast voyage to prepare for the next cargo. Without work done under way, port calls might have to be longer – and costlier – to take care of these commercially necessary tasks.

      Lastly, a single marine casualty can cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to cargo and the environment. Statistics suggest that human error is implicated in most accidents, but he argues that this highlights the need for better training.

      Coles is skeptical that the public – or regulators, or the P&I clubs – are ready to accept the idea of a merchant ship navigating unattended. He predicts the future of navigation is in automated electronic tools to assist highly trained mariners – an evolutionary progression rather than a revolution. Coles foresees a time when a ship is self-navigating under most circumstances, and an alarm will bring the crew to the bridge when an action is required: “You reduce the monotony. You have officers on standby for when their skills are needed, and you still have the crew doing the maintenance.” 

Integration and Automation

Whether or not full autonomy makes its debut in 2020, the great majority of commercial vessels will have mariners standing watch for some time to come, and every marine electronics company offers a range of tools and services for making that task easier.

      As perhaps the ultimate step toward a unified bridge console, the shipowner now has the option of buying a single large touchscreen for navigational information. Bridge integration firm Alphatron sees very large screens as the way of the future. Their top-end offerings are not as massive as the billboard-sized monitors now available shoreside, but they are still more than twice the size of the average bridge display. The firm says its 46-inch multifunction touchscreen is large enough to give a simultaneous view of radar, ECDIS, alarm monitoring and dynamic positioning data.

      For the Second Mate, Alphatron and others offer a dedicated “electronic chart table,” a very large touchscreen display designed for horizontal installation. The oversized monitor means that route planning can be done at “paper chart” scale with less time spent window-scrolling, and the user can point and touch to select waypoints or inspect features. Competing firm NAVTOR offers a unit with split-screen display, letting the navigator look at the same route on large and small-scale charts at the same time. It also includes an option for overlaying weather imagery and weather-routing recommendations.

“To Cloud or not to Cloud”

Just as systems integration on the bridge can make watchkeeping and other shipboard functions easier, so can the integration of operational data in the cloud make the business of shipping easier – and more profitable – for the home office.

      Large firms have led the way in this approach to data-driven, shore-based decision-making. When a vessel operator has hundreds of ships, like Maersk Lines, it is possible to justify the expense of a full “Global Voyage Centre,” as the carrier calls its dedicated ship monitoring department. For smaller companies that cannot afford such an investment, many vendors – from engineering conglomerates like GE to class societies like ClassNK – now offer a range of services that store shipboard data in the cloud and put it to use with cloud-hosted software.

       These suppliers note a long list of benefits. The ease of sharing data via cloud-hosting can mean better coordination with shoreside parties including the operator, suppliers, ship's agents, ports and others. Some of the cloud-hosted applications offer access via mobile devices, making ship-management data accessible to staff or executives wherever they go.

       Fuel consumption and other data can be used by shoreside staff to fine-tune operations from afar. Maersk says this intervention alone saves them millions of dollars every year. Remote engine monitoring via a cloud-enabled data feed – like Singapore-based Brightree's plug-and-play system – can facilitate condition-based preventive maintenance, potentially reducing costs and downtime. And in the event of an equipment failure, shoreside technicians can use detailed sensor data or a live video feed to diagnose the problem – without traveling to meet the ship.

      René Jahncke, Director of Maritime Business for CODie Software, says the option to store ship data in the cloud has become an increasingly important feature. “We have to provide cloud-hosting now,” Jahncke says, and the firm does – in addition to the more traditional option of hosting its software suite on an operator's local area network (LAN).

      Jahncke recognizes the benefits of the cloud but points out that it is highly dependent on constant satellite Internet: “We've had that discussion with several software manufacturers. We call it the million-dollar question: to cloud or not to cloud. Cloud-hosting means you can get access to your data anywhere there is Internet, but many shipowners don't want to pay for the cost of the permanent satellite connection to shore.”

      And not every operator is ready to rely on that connection. What if it breaks down due to bad weather or technical faults, Jahncke asks. The whole system would be unavailable, meaning an interruption in administrative, reporting, accounting and ordering processes on board.

      Whether stored in the cloud or not, the automatic collection of shipboard sensor data is essential for a modern software suite. “This is a must for our new system,” Jahncke says. “All of the 'classic' software suites require a lot of manual input. As soon as you can integrate sensors, you can automate the data entry, saving time and reducing errors.”

      At the moment, though, there are still technical limits. Jahncke adds that “So far there is no such thing as a fully integrated, 'automatic' ship management system drawing on data from every electronic device on board. Different electronics manufacturers have different designs, and the interfacing is a big issue.”

Empowering Seafarers

Shoreside industries have already reaped the benefits of increased connectivity, and shipping has begun to move in the same direction. But no matter how fast it adopts the latest in IT trends, well-trained professional mariners will be navigating ships for years to come.

      For Captain Coles, they are the future of the marine electronics business: “Technology is becoming the lifeblood of economical shipping, and shipping needs modern seafarers to handle this technology. As industry leaders, we must continue to empower these seafarers.” – MarEx

Paul Benecki is MarEx’s West Coast correspondent.

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