Tugs have tested automatic navigation technology to improve safety by mitigating collision risks, but there remain regulatory barriers
International towage sectors are facing challenges recruiting and training crews as fleets are modernised and expanded. There is a shortage of trained manpower, growing safety concerns and restrictions to travel caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automatic navigation technology can alleviate some of these challenges by providing situational awareness support to crew.
Robosys Automation and Robotics founder and chief executive Aditya Nawab says these technologies can be combined with autonomous navigation systems to assist masters with manoeuvring and towage.
“The shortage of trained manpower means a decrease in manning levels and more underqualified and inexperienced crews,” he explains to Riviera Maritime Media.
“This is a gradual process but needs to be addressed by more safe automatic systems if accidents are not going to increase,” Mr Nawab says.
“If underqualified or inexperienced crews are to do their job safely, there must be greater help for them using aids and systems that automatically prevent dangerous situations arising.”
Autonomous navigation systems can warn masters or can even steer a vessel out of danger. “Autonomy is good for any dull, dirty, or dangerous job,” says Mr Nawab. “Seafarers are going to benefit from greater use of this technology to enhance their situational awareness. Masters will benefit through the additional layer of safety and security.”
Robosys is participating in joint industry projects investigating ships sharing their intentions, eventually automatically with each other.
“This will be of particular value to tug and other vessel operations where a manoeuvre is analysed for safety, pre-planned and pre-advised to all concerned, avoiding unexpected and dangerous movements,” says Mr Nawab. “Where they automatically exchange messages and temporarily remove the human from the equation.”
Robosys is advancing autonomous and robotics technology in maritime. It uses AI and machine learning to convert an autopilot, already widely used in maritime, into an intelligent autopilot.
“This is analogous to the Tesla autopilot for the sea,” says Mr Nawab. “It provides a range of products as a stepping-stone towards automating ships.”
This is from IMO degree 1 autonomy where it acts as an advanced driver-assist system for the vessel to IMO degree 4, “where it is capable of calculating and navigating a track without human assistance and following Collision Avoidance Rules (COLREGS) wherever it is applicable” he explains.
There have been pilot tests and field trials of autonomous navigation technology in Singapore, China, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and the US, mainly on tugs or small harbour vessels. Mr Nawab expects more will follow.
“Technology is opening up the doors for various applications and acting as an enabler and a tool to optimise performance and productivity,” he says. “The maritime industry has largely been conservative in adopting new technology as compared to other sectors. But this is changing. There is awareness within the industry which is helping our business.”
Maritime markets for this technology are expanding, from initially being limited to just security and government, into commercial and recreational segments. “The field of maritime autonomy is exciting and has good long-term prospects,” Mr Nawab says.
But there are still implementation challenges to overcome. “One of the biggest challenges to capture some of the market segments is the legislative and regulatory barriers,” he explains.
“Another challenge is figuring out the best possible way to capture those market segments and delivering products in the most cost-effective manner.”
Robosys is in discussions with regulatory and legislative bodies along with equipment manufacturers. “Innovation not only extends to technology but also regulation, legislation, and the frameworks necessary to bring about a positive change,” says Mr Nawab.
“The entire industry is rising to the challenge and finding innovative ways to enable the technology. This positive momentum is impacting everyone.”
There is increasing awareness of the benefits of these technologies among stakeholders.
“We have worked hard to solve the problems the maritime industry faces – a lack of qualified seafarers, a dwindling enthusiasm to work in the field and a stressful working environment that increases the mental workload and chance of accidents,” says Mr Nawab.
“There is a sense of excitement that motivates us to work and push the boundaries of innovation. When the technology has gained momentum and awareness, there is a sense of urgency that excites us to bring the technology to market.”
Robosys has other issues to overcome to achieve these goals. “Our long-term challenge is to secure proper resources – financial and human – to support future demand,” Mr Nawab says.
Robosys is building a vessel to test and demonstrate Robosys Voyager 100 autonomous navigation technology in collaboration with Ring Powercraft in the UK.
Riviera Maritime Media’s first ITS TUGTECHNOLOGY Webinar Week will be held on 29-31 March - use this link for more details and to register for these webinars