Artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable autonomous ships to cross oceans and sail coasts avoiding hazards and delivering cargo
Sea trials are underway testing technology to navigate an autonomous vessel across the Atlantic Ocean, as analysts predict this will be a US$1.5Bn market in the future.
Developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning and remote-control solutions will enable ships to self-navigate in coastal waters and across oceans.
In March, Promare and IBM started marine trials of AI Captain, an artificial intelligence technology to be deployed on the first autonomous vessel to attempt a transatlantic voyage. AI Captain was tested on manned research vessel Plymouth Quest by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory off southern England.
It will be installed on unmanned vessel Mayflower, which will use AI Captain to sail from Plymouth, UK, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, US, from September 2020. AI Captain uses cameras, IBM edge computing and AI to safely navigate vessels around ships, buoys and other ocean hazards.
Testing is at the UK Maritime Autonomy Centre, where Thales has selected Centrik to manage operational developments. Centrik will use its Joscar program to measure and monitor all elements of operations including safety reporting, risk management, training and equipment maintenance.
Feedback from tests will help developers refine AI Captain’s machine learning models. Edge computing and machine learning will enable Mayflower’s self-navigation as the vessel will not have access to high-bandwidth connectivity throughout its transatlantic voyage. IBM edge computers will be fully autonomous and powered by several onboard Nvidia Jetson embedded computing boards.
Mayflower’s AI Captain will independently detect and classify ships, buoys and other hazards such as land, breakwaters and debris. Mayflower’s operational decision manager will follow the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and IMO’s SOLAS rules for safe navigation.
AI Captain will use forecast data from The Weather Company to assist navigation decision making. A safety manager running on IBM’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux will review decisions to ensure they are safe for Mayflower and surrounding vessels.
This will be the first true test of autonomous vessel technology as trials and operations to date only include small unmanned surface vessels in local environments and developments in decision support for manned boats.
But this is changing, with nations competing in a technology race to become leaders in autonomous vessel technology which Thetius forecast will be worth US$1.5Bn in 2025.
Although early leadership is in northern Europe, Thetius research analysts predict China would be the leader within five years. Its researchers unearthed almost 3,000 patents relating to autonomous shipping technology worldwide, of which 96% were registered in China.
Most of those patents were registered in the last five years by Chinese universities and private companies, says Thetius founder and director Nick Chubb.
“The incredible amount of recent patent activity indicates significant research and development funding has been made available to Chinese researchers building the next generation of autonomous shipping technology,” he says. “The Chinese Government is highly supportive of the sector, having recently set up a 777-km2 autonomous shipping testbed in Guangdong.”
In this testbed site, Zhuhai-based technology group Yunzhou Tech completed trials with autonomous cargo ship Jin Dou Yun 0 Hao. This 12.9-m vessel carried cargo from Dong Ao island to Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge pier, operated by automatic navigation technology and remote control.
This followed earlier remote control and autonomous navigation tests during Q4 2019. Yunzhou Tech plans further tests and commercial operations. In H2 2021, Qingdao-based smart ship technology group Navigation Brilliance will begin operations with 300-TEU autonomous container ship Zhi Fei for shortsea voyages. It previously conducted autonomous trials with small vessel Zhi Teng to test its navigation technology and intends to order larger autonomous container ships of 500 TEU and 800 TEU if Zhi Fei is a success.
Autonomous surveys and tugs
Autonomous technology is being developed for marine surveys with the first unmanned vessels scheduled to be operating by Q4 2020. Fugro formed a partnership with Sea Kit International to develop unmanned surface vessels (USVs) which can deploy remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles for marine asset inspection. Fugro has built a global network of seven remote operations centres to deliver inspection and positioning services.
ThayerMahan intends to use iXblue’s DriX USVs to support seabed surveys for offshore oil, gas, renewables and dredging sectors. It partnered with PanGeo Subsea for seabed mapping, hydrographic surveys, ocean research, monitoring and tracking operations.
iXblue has sold five of its DriX units to UAE-headquartered Unique Group for geophysical and hydrographic surveys, subsea positioning and tracking operations.
The UAE will also be a hotbed for tug remote control technology. Abu Dhabi Ports is working with naval architects Robert Allan to develop autonomous tugs, starting with a remotely controlled tugboat that could be fully unmanned or operate within a wide spectrum of autonomy.
Abu Dhabi Ports intends to transfer tug control to shore, enabling these vessels to operate in more adverse weather conditions. Its maritime service arm Safeen will operate the tugs.
UAE-based Marakeb Technologies is developing USVs for the security forces in Saudi Arabia. Marakeb Technologies will provide its MAP Pro technology to control autonomous underwater and surface vessels. MAP Pro combines input from radar, electro-optics and communications technologies.
Remote ship piloting has already been tested in the Middle East. In March, cruise ship Costa Diadema was remotely manoeuvred through the Suez Canal by a team of pilots on escort tugs. In full co-ordination with transit control offices and navigation monitoring stations, four pilots on two tugs manoeuvred Costa Diadema northbound through the canal.
In Singapore, PSA Marine and Wärtsilä completed autonomous tug technology sea trials under the IntelliTug project. Remote assistance and smart navigation solutions were tested on harbour tug PSA Polaris during different scenarios and operations in Q1 2020. Test cases were carried out to verify the system’s aid in avoiding collisions in real-time.
This smart navigation system sends track and speed commands to an onboard dynamic positioning system, which drives the tug along a pre-determined route safely at varying speeds up to 10 knots.
These manoeuvres follow set behaviours and meet success criteria to enable vessels to reach their destination. This system also allows tug masters to view plotted routes and manually avoid collisions.
New gyro compass unveiled for advanced navigation
Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine and Raytheon Anschütz introduced new gyrocompasses to improve navigation safety and reduce maintenance.
Sperry Marine developed Navigat 2500 and 3500 fibre-optic gyro compasses with solid-state units for maintenance-free operation and superior heading measurement. They have no moving parts and are compatible with Sperry Marine’s CompassNet networked heading management system.
Raytheon Anschütz introduced its new Standard 22 NX gyro compass with additional interfaces and integrated sensors. It connects to additional heading receivers or has a direct connection to a Bridge Alert Management system. This interfaces to NMEA standard equipment for extra heading and positioning sensors. Standard 22 NX enables the direct connection of rate-of-turn indicators to the compass system.
Riviera Maritime Media will present discussions covering digitalisation, digital twins, implementing digital strategies and voyage planning during Vessel Optimisation Webinar Week, giving operators vital insights into the options available to extract maximum value from vessel operations. 12-15 May