As more remote-monitoring solutions are adopted, the move toward autonomous vessels gets closer
As more and more remote monitoring and control technology is being used to help owners and oil companies manage fuel consumption, it is advancing the case for remote and autonomous operation.
This technology trend started with monitoring fuel consumption and engine performance on vessels. Within three years it will include unmanned surface vessels being trialled by oil companies for controlling remotely operated vehicles underwater.
Miclyn Express Offshore (MEO) fleet manager Capt Sanket Ashok Shukla told Marine Propulsion that his company would be willing to consider remotely controlled or even autonomous vessels in the future.
His comments followed a seminar on future-proofing the offshore industry, hosted by the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology at the Seatrade Offshore Marine & Workboats Middle East event in Abu Dhabi.
During that event, Rolls-Royce Marine senior vice president for concepts, innovation and digital systems Oskar Levander said he expected a commercial remote-controlled or autonomous vessel to be operating in 2020.
There is a lot of development work to go before the maritime industry gets to that technology level. Capt Sanket is concerned that “autonomous vessels would be exposed to marine environments and operating around platforms,” which means there would be less room to manoeuvre if there was some kind of failure.
He added that adoption of autonomous vessel technology would need to be done in steps, starting with controlled operations. “Remotely operated vessels would be a great advantage,” Capt Sanket added.
In the meantime, offshore support vessel operators are reducing costs through adoption of vessel-monitoring technology.
MEO Middle East operations manager Ravinder Hoonjan said “oil companies are putting more focus on cutting fuel costs.” This is why he would recommend that “vessel owners need to monitor and manage better the fuel consumption” on their ships.
Seacor Offshore senior vice president Anthony Weller said his company had invested in fuel monitoring on vessels. He said this technology and remote maintenance had made vessels and engines more efficient. “We can be competitive with more efficient engines and fuel monitoring on our vessels for our clients,” he said.
Topaz Energy & Marine has introduced digitalisation and offshore communications technology on its vessels to improve crew welfare and business operations. Topaz is connecting its fleet of up to 110 vessels to this digital platform using Orange Business Services’ Maritime Connect solution, which includes VSAT, L-band backup, onboard wifi and links to coastal cellular networks. It is also working with ABS Nautical Systems on fleet-management programs.
Having been at the forefront of this trend for remotely operated and autonomous vessels for some time, Rolls-Royce has opened a state-of-the-art research facility in Turku, Finland, to develop the technologies it and its partners require to shape the future of an increasingly more autonomous global shipping industry.
The new Research & Development Centre for Autonomous Ships includes a Remote and Autonomous Experience Space aimed at showcasing the autonomous ship technologies Rolls-Royce has already introduced as well as those in the development stage.
The new R&D Centre enables Rolls-Royce and its partners to carry out projects focussed on autonomous navigation, the development of land-based control centres, and the use of artificial intelligence in future remote and autonomous shipping operations.
Speaking at the official opening, Rolls-Royce president for marine Mikael Makinen said: “I’m proud to say that the R&D centre is now up and running, and that all stakeholders, partners and customers will be able see here what a remote-controlled and autonomous maritime future could look like, and work with us to shape the future. The Experience Space that is part of the centre here in Turku, and a similar one we have in our Technology Centre in Norway, is aimed at demonstrating to our customers the very tangible benefits of what is often considered an intangible technology.”
The Experience Space includes several interactive tables on which Rolls-Royce can showcase existing and future technologies while aiding the development and introduction of new rules and standards for autonomous shipping.
“The centre allows us to more accurately communicate our capabilities, what we have available today and what will be available tomorrow,” saidRolls-Royce senior vice president for ship intelligence Karno Tenovuo. “It will completely focus on the development of solutions capable of smoothing the maritime industry’s transition to the digital age. An autonomous maritime ecosystem will open up unprecedented opportunities.”
As part of its quest for autonomous vessels, Rolls-Royce has signed a deal with Japanese multi-modal transport company Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) to collaborate in the development of its intelligent awareness system.
The collaboration will be on board 165 m passenger ferry Sunflower, which is owned and operated by MOL’s subsidiary. Sunflower operates on a 222-nautical-mile route between Kobe and Oita via the Akashi Kaikyo, Bisan Seto and Kurushima Straits.
Rolls-Royce intelligent awareness systems will make vessels safer, easier and more efficient to operate by providing crew with an enhanced understanding of their vessel’s surroundings. This will be achieved by fusing data from a range of sensors with information from existing ship systems such as automatic identification systems and radar.
MOL director Kenta Arai said: “Ferry Sunflower operates in some of the most congested waters in the world, and will provide an opportunity to rigorously test Rolls-Royce’s intelligent awareness system. We also expect it to provide our crews with a more informed view of a vessel’s surroundings in an accessible and user-friendly way. This can give our crews an enhanced decision-support tool, increasing their safety and that of our vessels. This is a significant challenge to frontline technology leading to our ultimate goal of autonomous sailing.”
Rolls-Royce director for marine digital and systems Asbjørn Skaro said: “We are exploring and testing how to combine sensor technologies effectively and affordably. Pilot projects such as this allow us to see how they can be best adapted to the needs of the customer and their crews so that our product effectively meets the needs of both. Successful pilots and product development programmes are also an important step toward the further development of remote and autonomous vessels, and to meeting our goal of having a remote-controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade.”
Rolls-Royce expects to be able to undertake an approval of concept and have its intelligent awareness product commercially available in 2018.
The system builds on experiences from R&D work worldwide. The intelligent awareness system will benefit from Rolls-Royce’s extensive experience in the Tekes-funded project Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative, which has been running since June 2015. The company has been conducting a series of tests of the sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions on board Finferries’ 65 m double-ended ferry Stella, which operates between Korpo and Houtskär in the Archipelago Sea on the southwest coast of Finland.