Building the business case for crewless, remote controlled tug boats, a panel of industry experts at Riviera’s Smart Tug Operations Conference said investment in smart systems could see payback within seven to 14 months
Smart, intelligent and autonomous: all attractive buzzwords used to signify cutting edge technology, but do the concepts behind them make a strong business case?
Speaking at the third session of Smart Tug Operations Conference in Singapore, 16 September, Kongberg Maritime senior vice president for concepts and innovation Oskar Levander said they do, in some sectors.
Large, oceangoing ships are not yet the place for crewless, remote control technology, according to Mr Levander. The sheer number of stakeholders required to facilitate that development is a barrier, he said, noting that International Maritime Organization (IMO) and regulatory bodies must still work together to make progress on rules governing autonomous operations. On the whole, Mr Levander said, shipowners of large vessels prefer to see smart systems as pathways to better safety rather than as a mechanism to make savings on crew costs. Tug boats, however, are ideal candidates to be the first movers in remote, autonomous vessels.
Tugs are local operators, meaning autonomous technology needs the backing of only one flag state to be implemented on board a tug. Operating in and around ports, tugs can be hauled up for any repairs or adjustments as autonomous technologies are trialled. Tugboats are also good vessels for systems integration, due to the redundant systems they are typically equipped with, he said.
Mr Levander said that the remote-autonomous concept would begin with tugs and move to larger ships later and that he saw nearly one-third of the entire worldwide shipping fleet as candidates for remote-autonomous operation.
One reason to start with tugs, Mr Levander said, is that tug operations are part of a highly cost-controlled business model. Slashing, or avoiding altogether, the cost of onboard crew can quickly tip the balance to profitability for a smart tug, he said, adding that payback for investment in the vessel can be as short as seven to 14 months. Although retrofitting is possible, Mr Levander said payback on investment is better in a newbuild tug as all the equipment can be made ready for remote operation.
Having a remote operations centre to decouple the crew from the vessel allows one existing crew to monitor and control several tugboats in a single eight or 10-hour shift, opening up yet another savings avenue.
Explaining the logic of a remote centre, Mr Levander said systems can perform repetitive, boring tasks whereas human intelligence is practically irreplaceable when it comes to handling unforeseen events. This level of human control can be best achieved at least cost through a remote centre, he asserted.
Mr Levander recalled a Kongsberg experience with a remote controlled tug in which the tugmaster felt he had more situational awareness in a remote centre. The sensors gave him a more complete picture that was typically not available for him on board, he said.
However, Mr Levander acknowledged remote-autonomous operation would require a lot of testing and validation and that cyber security would be a concern especially in integrating the tug with a remote control centre. While suppliers can already provide many of the systems and processes, there is still work to be done to replace manual mooring operations when lines have to be thrown to connect a tug with a vessel.