The maritime industry may never achieve ‘autonomous’ shipping in the sense that the vessel makes its own decisions about the cargoes it carries and route it takes from port to port. But this does not mean that the technologies that support remotely-controlled shipping are a distant dream.
In fact the reverse is true; a recent Marlink-Bureau Veritas webinar focussing on the SeaOwl remote controlled vessel project brought together the experts in this space to share their experience to date and views on the future evolution of cutting edge shipping.
SeaOwl successfully demonstrated its Remotely Operated Service at Sea (ROSS) concept in 2020, remotely-controlling an offshore support vessel securely from shore in full compliance with French flag and Bureau Veritas class requirements.
From a regulatory perspective, the ROSS project could proceed despite there being no prevailing regulatory framework. Under work in progress at IMO, the remotely-operated OSV is considered a MASS Degree 3 with no humans onboard, a type of ship for which trials have already taken place.
“The BV team worked to define a compliance pathway and relevant certificates,” explained Jean Baptiste Gillet, Strategy and Acquisition Director, Bureau Veritas Marine & Offshore. “Our guidelines identified gaps with equivalence to manned vessel operations with issues including quality of bridge visibility and management of emergency situations.”
Controlling a vessel remotely requires fully redundant, highly secure communications from the vessel to the control centre from where the master is driving the ship, relaying all typical navigation functions to shore using streaming data and video.
For smart network provider Marlink the ROSS project posed three challenges: the need for a failproof link with multiple redundancy, cyber security throughout the network infrastructure and access control to the sensors that monitor equipment and provide data. All were successfully met.
“You can compare the ROSS project to Formula 1 racing where engineering is taken to the extreme and learnings are brought back into the mainstream auto industry,” said President, Marlink Maritime, Tore Morten Olsen. “There also needs to be a positive business case for the user and even if autonomous shipping doesn’t happen any time soon we can take pieces of what has been developed and bring it back into mainstream shipping.”
The ROSS project was created to demonstrate the business case for safe remote operations controlled from anywhere in the world to oil major Total. The intention was to reduce cost, protect crew and reduce emissions since the OSV is battery-powered.
Vincent Boutteau, Managing Director, Seaowl, said his team focussed for two years on automating operations and understanding the impact in terms of reliability. “A key question was how to manage safe operations with the ROSS vessel’s crew and captain sited onshore. We needed to demonstrate that the functions used by the captain in remote operations are similar to what he usually has onboard, visual watch, ECDIS, AIS, radar, all of which was approved by flag and class to demonstrate the required level of safety.”
“Remote technology offers new use cases; it also requires a lot of software and connection to make it work,” added BV’s Gillet. “For class there is an opportunity to integrate our model with services such as remote survey; there are interesting opportunities and improvements in safety and efficiency if the quality is acceptable.”
Hamish Norton, President of Star Bulk Carriers admitted his company could be ‘way behind’ on remote technologies but added “maybe that’s the right place to be”.
“In future there could be read-only access to voyage critical equipment like electronically-controlled engines and remote operations for non-critical technology like ballast water, carbon capture or NOx abatement. In the near term I think the closest we’ll get is providing the captain with information about optimal route and speed based on known performance.”
For Norton, a key barrier to greater use of remote technology is that much equipment doesn’t have network capability, and if it does, the connections are non-standard or proprietary, complicating the integration.
“I would be in favour of an IMO rule requiring standard network interfaces,” he added. “Given the risk of ransomware attack or hostile takeover, maybe it’s a good thing that most equipment is air-gapped, it provides some sort of security.”
To Boutteau, ROSS was in large part an integration project. All of the building blocks existed; the challenge was to integrate components from different suppliers and enable them to communicate in a maritime IT world with no real standards.
Olsen stated that the industry needs to drive standardisation as the regulators are some way behind the curve. “There will always be vessels that cannot adapt but what I see is connectivity developments that will further enable digitalisation for vessels,” he said. “More systems are coming to market and there is more interest in this domain, it’s obvious an evolution is taking place.”
Another outcome of the project is a greater understanding of how to better manage cyber risk. Cyber remains a huge challenge for the mainstream industry and as Boutteau pointed out, it is possible to spoof GPS and spam the vessel, remotely-controlled or not.
Visit the Marlink website to view the full recording of this webinar