Most ship operators will adopt autonomous technology in the next decade to improve efficiency and safety, says innovations director
Technical developments in artificial intelligence (AI), ship-to-shore communications and computer-supported navigation will enable more unmanned coastal ship operations.
These are the expectations of Netherlands Maritime Technology (NMT) innovations director Marnix Krikke, who was involved in autonomous vessel sea trials earlier this year.
He thinks autonomous vessel developments in the Netherlands will generate new technologies to improve navigational safety by shifting operational responsibility from ship to shore.
“Most [ship] operators in the next decade will adopt some level of autonomous technology,” Mr Krikke tells Maritime Digitalisation & Communications.
“We have spoken to owners involved in shortsea shipping with fixed routes between ports and they think these could be done autonomously, if they are on the same route and in similar conditions,” he explains. “They could have a fast introduction into autonomous ship technology.”
Mr Krikke also expects offshore service companies to adopt unmanned vessel technology. “In a few years’ time autonomous operations will be routine for offshore surveys,” he says. Autonomous surface vessels will be able to operate hundreds of miles along predetermined tracks without further support. Or they could be remotely operated. “There could be mother ships operating several smaller autonomous vessels,” says Mr Krikke.
Deepsea shipping will benefit from technologies considered as intermediate steps towards autonomous shipping, such as installing more sensors on ships to provide additional information to bridge officers, improving situational awareness.
“Ship operators will adopt these intermediate technologies to advise mariners, shift some operational responsibility from ship to shore and reduce crew on board,” says Mr Krikke.
Container issue alert
An example is adding sensors on ships to alert crew if there is an issue with the cargo.
Mr Krikke suggests sensors on containers could alert the bridge if there is instability that could lead to cargo going overboard. This would have helped the crew on container ship MSC Zoe at the end of 2018 when containers fell into the North Sea.
A developing gale caused instability on the ship and containers and their cargo polluted the Netherlands and German islands, and coastline.
“On MSC Zoe, the crew were not aware that containers went overboard until hours afterwards,” says Mr Krikke. “By providing sensor data from the top row of containers, crew could have been alerted immediately they were going overboard.”
Autonomy can also improve inland waterway operations where there is potential to optimise routes, logistics and port-vessel operations.
“We are working with the government in smart shipping and including our infrastructure, the ports and waterways,” says Mr Krikke. “Developing the best use of data for efficient, optimal routeing between locks and ports and optimising logistics. There can be efficiency gains from connecting maritime and it relieves crew of the tedious paperwork.”
Autonomous Shipping JIP
From 2020, NMT, the association of Dutch shipyards and suppliers, will be involved in multiple joint industry projects (JIPs) to develop elements of autonomous vessel technology.
These will progress the results of the Autonomous Shipping JIP due for completion in November 2019. That venture successfully tested autonomous vessel technology with sea trials 5 nautical miles off the coast of Den Helder in March 2019.
For these tests, SeaZip Offshore Services’ fast crew transport vessel SeaZip 3 was outfitted with collision avoidance technology from Robosys Automation.
This should stimulate more industry projects to develop and implement associated technologies. “The final phase of the JIP is to prepare for extended [research] projects and initiatives,” says Mr Krikke.
These will further develop technologies for autonomous shortsea and inland waterway operations and encourage shore assistance for deepsea shipping. “We will be investigating the main aspects of autonomous shipping in more detail – nautical systems, safer operation of onboard systems, safer sailing and communications between ships and shore,” Mr Krikke explains.
“We will look at rules, regulations and artificial intelligence that could be used in shipping. We will try to do other demonstrations, provide guidance and conduct more extensive studies.”
Some of these will combine individual developments by Dutch companies within a national framework programme. “We need to bring all this together in a coherent programme so companies can take a position in autonomous vessel developments,” says Mr Krikke.
During the Autonomous Shipping JIP, SeaZip 3 performed evasive manoeuvres safely in 11 scenarios and interacted with two other vessels – Maritime Institute Willem Barentsz training vessel Octans and The Netherlands Coastguard emergency towage vessel Guardian.
These trials followed research by Technical University of Delft, TNO and simulation testing by MARIN in Wageningen.
“We demonstrated in multiple ship situations that the vessel can follow a set course and the autonomous system can make the right decisions,” says Mr Krikke. “But the vessel did not follow an optimal route.” This could be the focus of 2020 JIPs.
Deficiencies in data standardisation and integration hold back IoT
Another aspect of autonomous vessel technology is connecting vessel systems in an internet-of-things (IoT) network. Dutch shipyards are deploying sensor networks on vessels they produce for owners worldwide. “Shipbuilders and system suppliers are investing in digitalising ships to analyse equipment availability and connectivity between systems,” says NMT innovations director Marnix Krikke.
However, lack of data standardisation and integration between ship systems are holding back further developments. “Connectivity and standardisation are important. System providers are interested in communications but they are reluctant to develop standards for data transfer and connectivity,” says Mr Krikke. “We need these to accelerate innovations in autonomous shipping.”
Dutch companies, organisations and owners met in July at a Platform Broadband@Sea meeting to discuss requirements for IoT and innovation. This included discussions with class on their view of data transfer and quality assurance.
Mr Krikke says the main conclusion from that meeting was data standardisation is a key requirement going forward. “We have competitor influences in system supply, shipbuilding and class,” he says. “They need to work together, so in the next few years, we may have better standards.”
Snapshot CV: Marnix Krikke
Marnix Krikke is a naval architect from Delft University of Technology and has worked with Netherlands Maritime Technology for 12 years. He started his career as a naval architect in the sea systems department of the Royal Netherlands Navy.
There he acquired experience in developing and co-ordinating national and international research and development projects. With the navy he was responsible for the R&D strategy development and naval platform technology. Since joining NMT, the association of Dutch shipyards and suppliers in 2007, Mr Krikke has been responsible for innovation and human capital matters.