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Autonomous offshore vessels could be operating within two years

Thu 13 Apr 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Autonomous offshore vessels could be operating within two years
Oskar Levander, Rolls-Royce Marine

The first autonomous offshore support vessels could be in operation in 2018 as technology leaders develop them for various offshore applications. The benefits in using unmanned vessels would be reducing the risks to offshore workers, removing some of the human errors and lowering operating costs.

Kongsberg Maritime, Rolls-Royce, Damen Shipyards and DNV GL presented their expectations on developments in autonomous vessels at Riviera’s Annual Offshore Support Journal Conference in London. Kongsberg is the closest to launching an autonomous vessel, and is collaborating with the UK’s Automated Ships on the world’s first unmanned vessel for offshore operations, to be named Hrönn.

That vessel could be in operation in 2018. Initially, it would be ready for light offshore duties in a remote control mode. But eventually, it could be fully autonomous, said Kongsberg executive vice president for global sales and marketing Stene Førsund. He described the technologies that enable autonomous vessels. “Digitisation expands the scope for remote control of vessels and we can develop algorithms for autonomous operation,” he said.

Kongsberg vice president for maritime digital platforms Matt Duke described more of these technologies. He listed the internet of things, cloud services, data analytics, remote services virtual and augmented reality, 3D visualisation and cyber security as key technology trends. “In cyber-physical interactions, the internet of things and cyber secure networks are essential. For autonomous vessels, we need high levels of quality assurance, redundancy and using standard equipment to reduce any issues. We need to validate equipment before it goes into service and use condition-based maintenance during service,” said Mr Duke.

DNV GL is involved with Kongsberg in the Hrönn project, and in other autonomous vessel developments. This was highlighted during a presentation by Bjørn-Johan Vartdal, programme director for strategic research and innovation at DNV GL. He described the rule requirements for autonomous and remotely controlled vessels. He also suggested that human interaction should remain in the loop in some form, whether it is just supervisory or making offshore decisions. 

DNV GL is also working with Rolls-Royce and Inmarsat to develop autonomous vessel technology. Rolls-Royce vice president of innovation, engineering and technology, Oskar Levander described how unmanned cargo supply vessels and control units for remotely operated vehicles could be developed. He predicted that one of these would be taken into operation by 2020.

Mr Levander expects the early steps will be made through remote monitoring and control of engineroom systems and semi-autonomous navigation functions. He added that more intelligent vessels could improve operations, enhance safety by reducing the human error factor and lower operating costs.

He presented the concept of an autonomous supply vessel, which would be used to ship small cargoes out to platforms on a daily basis. “We can afford to do this, if we do not have many people involved,” Mr Levander said. “We lower costs, do not need crew and optimise cargo flow.” He also presented a concept for an autonomous surface vessel for deploying ROVs. “It would be a floating power and communications unmanned vessel that is remotely controlled from shore and means ROVs would be operated from shore. This could transform offshore operations and lower operating expenditure.”

Damen Shipyards project manager Bas Blaak described how the company was developing many of the technologies that would be required for remotely controlled and autonomous vessels. “By defining the levels of autonomy intelligently it is possible to define a logical and organic roadmap towards an autonomous vessel,” he said. “We are developing the concept of an autonomous platform supply vessel with reduced size, but carrying the same payload,” he concluded.

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