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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Suppliers and owners tackle vessel remote control challenges

Tue 12 Dec 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Suppliers and owners tackle vessel remote control challenges
GulfMark Offshore’s Highland Chieftain in the North Sea was controlled from a workstation in California in August

Rolls-Royce, Wärtsilä and Navtor have demonstrated technologies for remotely controlling different types of workboats

Technology providers plan to work closely with shipowners during 2018 to tackle some of the challenges emerging as remote control and autonomous ships are developed. These include providing greater and more accurate information to vessel operators, developing better anti-collision programs and producing physical feedback to controllers.

In 2017, Rolls-Royce collaborated with Danish tug owner Svitzer and class society Lloyd’s Register to develop a method of controlling a harbour tug from a remote control room. Marine Electronics & Communications saw this in action in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 16 November when a tug master successfully controlled the 2016-built harbour tug Svitzer Hermod from a shore-based operations centre in Svitzer’s offices.

He was able to manoeuvre the Sanmar-built tug using a Rolls-Royce dynamic positioning system on the vessel and could visualise the environment around the tug through 120˚ of screens that displayed live camera footage that was augmented with a range of navigational and situation awareness information.

All of the tug handling and display controls were accessible from the controller’s chair. One significant difference from controlling the vessel from the bridge was that the tug operator was not able to feel any of the sensations of being in control. However, according to Svitzer group technical and innovation manager Thomas Bangslund, this will be added in a second phase of testing for the remote control technology.

“We will be introducing sensory elements, such as noise and vibration into the remote operating centre,” he told MEC, by “adding more augmented reality to provide more information to the operator.”

Svitzer and Rolls-Royce added sensors on Svitzer Hermod to deliver navigation and situation awareness information to the controller. This included adding Lidar laser scanning, multiple cameras, night-vision thermal cameras, DP radar-scan, multiple mobile phone network transceivers and satellite communications.

This was on top of the existing Furuno radar and ECDIS feeds that are transmitted directly from the tug over various 3G and 4G cellular connections to the control room. Svitzer Hermod also has two Global Xpress Ka-band antennas, supplied by Cobham Satcom, for communications when the tug is outside the mobile phone networks. There are also motion reference units and GPS for the DP system.

Mr Bangslund expects there will be further technology demonstrations in 2018 as Svitzer uses its experience to enhance operations across the fleet. He explained that technology could be used for resting crews while a tug is sailing between different countries and ports, adding “we can have a rested crew when the tug arrives on site”.

The augmented reality developed for the remote control room could also be used on vessel bridges of tugs to deliver more information to masters. The camera technology could be adapted for bridge uses to assist in navigation and towing, while thermal cameras enhance fire-fighting capabilities.

Mr Bangslund explained that data from tug operations could be used to improve the performance of captains – using data from the motion reference unit in the engineroom combined with towage operating data to provide advice to masters. Other operational data can also be used to help captains improve the performance of tugs.

Remote control and autonomous technology is likely to be adopted to other vessel types before 2020. Rolls-Royce Marine senior vice president for concepts, innovation and digital systems, Oskar Levander expects these technologies to make possible the first commercial autonomous vessel in the next two years. This might be a passenger vessel operating between islands, or a coastal cargo ship, or an autonomous surface vessel used to deploy underwater remotely operated vehicles.

The remote control technology could also enable ship designers to transfer the bridge inside a vessel’s infrastructure. He considered this could be achieved on a 1,000 TEU feeder container ship where “there would be more room for cargo by moving the bridge below deck”, Mr Levander said.

There are also applications outside commercial shipping. For example, Rolls-Royce has developed the Crystal Blue superyacht concept which includes a bridge below deck, which is similar to the remote operating centre demonstrated in Copenhagen.

The Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) has conducted research into developing autonomous ferries that can transport passengers and vehicles across channels. NTNU Oceans director Ingrid Schjølberg, said such ferries would need minimal on-deck structures.

These vessels could be barges that would have electric propulsion plus autonomous navigation and anti-collision software. For ferries completing longer distances, there would be extra requirements for remote monitoring and control. Technology developed for remote controlled and autonomous ships can be used to design and operate partially-autonomous vessels, said Prof Schjølberg. These would include lower-cost sensors, higher computer processing power, e-navigation and decision support tools.

Offshore and beyond

A platform supply vessel in the North Sea was the focus of a demonstration by Wärtsilä Marine Solutions in August 2017 of its involvement in smart marine ecosystems. GulfMark Offshore’s Highland Chieftain, which had a Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum package for navigation, automation and DP, was controlled from a centre in San Diego, California, USA.

Additional software was temporarily added to the vessel’s DP system to route data over its satellite link to the remote workstation. From there, the controller was able to sail the vessel through a sequence of manoeuvres during the four-hour test using a combination of DP and manual joystick control. Communications between the control room and vessel involved satellite broadband connectivity.

Since then, in November, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions president Roger Holm unveiled its Smart Marine Ecosystem vision, through which it is developing technology that will enable remote control of passenger ships, offshore support and other types of vessel.

As part of this, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions intends to develop e-navigation, ship optimisation, industry digitalisation and vessel remote control. “The opportunities offered through smart technology will foster a new era of collaboration and knowledge sharing between shipowners, suppliers and partners,” Mr Holm said.

“The opportunities offered through smart technology will foster a new era of collaboration”

Wärtsilä opened its first digital acceleration centre in Helsinki, Finland in October and another in Singapore in December. Mr Holm described three primary forces that he said will re-shape passenger shipping: big data analytics, which will optimise both operations and energy management; intelligent vessels, which will enable automated and optimised processes; and smart ports, which will result in smoother and faster port operations. Mr Holm said Wärtsilä was committed to developing this technology further, hinting that there would be further tests in 2018.

Navtor tests remote vessel control bridge

Navtor has tested the concept of a shore-based bridge, which it thinks is a vital step on the path to autonomous shipping. It is working with Cyber-Physical Systems Engineering (CPSE) Labs, which is an EU-funded consortium of partners that are researching cloud-based technologies across different sectors.

With the help of eMIR, a German-backed initiative for improving safety and efficiency in maritime transportation, Navtor has tested remote control of a vessel from a shore-based bridge. In November, 2017, it successfully tested route planning, voyage monitoring and transferring safety-critical navigation functions from vessel to shore.

Navtor set up a desktop of three e-navigation displays – ECDIS, a conning station and its own NavStation – along with a wall of displays showing an overview of surrounding vessels and camera views of outside the vessel. All of the information between the vessel and the shore was communicated through mobile phone 3G or 4G networks.

A first step during this test was a safety check on ECDIS before the navigator on board the test vessel sailed it out of port. Once in open water, he handed control of the vessel to the shore-based bridge. This operator was able to monitor the voyage using the camera feed and control the vessel using the NavStation.

During the test, the vessel was heading towards a collision with a buoy. In these potentially dangerous situations the shore-based operator can control the vessel using a touchscreen workstation.

Project manager Bjørn Age Hjøllo said a shore-based bridge could be used as part of a vessel or fleet management system, adding that it is “an important step towards the autonomous vessel”. It may allow an operator to “take over control of the vessel, reducing costs as only work crew would be required on board as a failsafe back-up,” he explained.


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