Autonomous navigation and remote-control developments demonstrate benefits to maritime and offshore sectors
Marlink and Bureau Veritas worked with Seaowl to demonstrate the Remotely Operated Service at Sea (ROSS) concept in 2020 – to remotely control an offshore support vessel (OSV) securely from shore in full compliance with French flag and Bureau Veritas class requirements.
This project proceeded despite there being no prevailing regulatory framework. But under IMO guidelines, this remotely operated OSV was considered a MASS Degree 3 with no humans on board.
“The team worked to define a compliance pathway and relevant certificates,” explains Bureau Veritas Marine & Offshore director for strategy and acquisition Jean Baptiste Gillet. “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, relaying all navigation functions to shore using streaming data and video.
For 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 onboard sensors and monitoring equipment to 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,” says Marlink Maritime president Tore Morten Olsen.
“There needs to be a positive business case for the user and even if autonomous shipping does not happen any time soon, we can take pieces of what has been developed and bring it back into mainstream shipping,” he says.
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 costs, protect crew and reduce emissions since the OSV is battery powered.
Seaowl managing director Vincent Boutteau says his team focused 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,” he says. “We needed to demonstrate that the functions used by the captain in remote operations were similar to what he usually has on board, visual watch, ECDIS, AIS, radar, all of which was approved by flag and class to demonstrate the required level of safety.”
Mr Gillet says remote technology offers new use cases. “It also requires a lot of software and connection to make it work.”
Bureau Veritas is using this technology for remote surveys. “There are interesting opportunities and improvements in safety and efficiency if the quality is acceptable,” says Mr Gillet.
Mr Boutteau explains ROSS was mostly a technology 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,” he says.
Mr Olsen says the industry needs to drive standardisation as the regulators are behind the curve. “There will always be vessels that cannot adapt,” he says, “but what I see is connectivity developments that will further enable digitalisation for vessels.”
Industry demand is increasing for remotely controlled vessels. “More systems are coming to market and there is more interest in this domain. An evolution is taking place,” says Mr Olsen.
A milestone was passed in remote control trials in Singapore in Q2 2021 when Keppel Offshore & Marine (O&M) and ABB successfully controlled a tugboat. They enabled a master to control Keppel Smit Towage tug Maju 510 from Maritime and Port Authority’s Maritime Innovation Lab in April 2021.
Keppel O&M and ABB retrofitted the 2011-built, 32-m, Singapore-flag tug with autonomous technology for command from shore. ABB provided its Ability Marine Pilot for tug remote control using information from onboard systems to generate digital situational awareness on the tug and at the command centre.
Keppel Smit Towage managing director Romi Kaushal says remote control technologies will support captains. “We leverage technology to improve our operations,” he says. “With Maju 510 as a pilot tug, we are able to experience and provide feedback on how autonomous operations can help the tug captain and crew to simplify navigation to focus on crucial tasks,” Mr Kaushal explains. “This has the potential to significantly enhance operational safety and efficiency.”
Remote control enables tugs to transit between towage jobs without crew interaction and assists in station keeping, allowing onboard crew to rest rather than perform routine tasks.
ABB Marine & Ports division president Juha Koskela says this milestone is a significant step towards autonomous shipping. “The intent of this technology is to relieve crew of tasks that can be automated, enabling them to perform at their best during critical periods, and enhancing the overall safety and productivity of marine operations,” he says.
“This trial also confirms the possibility for applying remote and autonomous technology to other vessel types.”
Keppel O&M managing director for newbuilds Tan Leong Peng says “remote control navigation is an important feature of autonomous vessels as it acts as a safeguard and is useful in certain complicated scenarios.”
A second phase of this project, scheduled for Q4 2021, will see Maju 510 perform autonomous collision avoidance tasks while under remote supervision.
Singapore has become a hub for autonomous vessel and remote-control pilot projects with PSA Marine teaming up with Wärtsilä in Singapore for autonomous navigation trials. PACC Offshore Services Holdings (POSH) is also pushing the autonomous technology boundaries for harbour tugs. It successfully trialled autonomous navigation and artificial intelligence innovations on ship-handling tug POSH Harvest in partnership with ST Engineering in 2020.
There were several trials elsewhere in 2019 and 2020. In Japan, NYK and Japan Marine Science collaborated on two research projects with Japanese Government backing to trial remote navigation and collision avoidance on vessels including a tug in Tokyo Bay.
In the Netherlands, Kotug International passed a new milestone in autonomous vessel navigation in September 2020 with a successful demonstration using a training harbour tug. It tested smart navigation on RT Borkum training tug in Rotterdam, being the first vessel in the world to autonomously sail the most optimal route in a port setting.
Dutch tug operator Herman Senior said it would upgrade one of its vessels with autonomous navigation to improve operational safety using a remote-helm control system from Sea Machines Robotics.
In the US, Sea Machines Robotics has supplied its remote command technology to articulated tug-barge units and for Foss Maritime’s latest escort tug newbuilding. Nichols Brothers Boat Builders delivered Rachael Allen with an SM300 autonomous unit, enabling transit autonomy and remote access of the tug’s onboard machinery. It allows personnel to manage and support operations from anywhere on board the vessel or from shore.
In the UK, Zelim intends to deploy remotely operated search and rescue vessels based at offshore windfarm installations for emergency response. These freefall rescue vessels would be deployed from a substation, the transition piece on a wind turbine or launched from a service operation vessel. Once launched it would transit to the recovery location and use a sensor package to locate the person in the water.
More unmanned surface vessels are under development for the offshore sectors by Fugro, Ocean Infinity, XOcean, HydroSurv, SeaRobotics, Kongsberg, AutoNaut and ThayerMahan. First-generation vessels are unmanned survey vessels, but new-generation vessels are being brought to market that can do much more than survey the seabed.
In the near-term, these second-generation vessels, such as for Reach Remote and those unveiled by Fugro and Ocean Infinity, will deploy remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles. There could be fleets of these vessels providing seabed inspections, surveys and workover operations in the future.
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