The rapid development and adoption of new technology by consumers will transform shipping assumptions, according to ABB Marine & Ports senior vice president of digital solutions Mikko Lepistö
The growth in seaborne traffic is driven by global trends in GDP, but outside factors are now having a profound effect on the economics of transportation. These include accelerating urbanisation, urban pollution and digitalisation, which is transforming logistics and asset management.
These trends have significant consequences for shipping: increased urbanisation can change shipping routes; electric (or hybrid) cars influence the transition towards marine e-mobility, and, as the driverless automobile becomes a “when, not if” proposition, parallels with ship automation can easily be drawn.
Car makers are now prioritising R&D investment in electric cars, taking advantage of their relative simplicity, ease of control, convenient ability to be updated and energy efficiency when compared to conventional engines. These are concepts close to our heart, which is why, this year, ABB has affirmed its affinity with e-mobility through our role as the title partner of ABB FIA Formula E Championship, the fully electric international FIA motorsport class.
The way to marine e-mobility
Returning to the maritime context, ABB’s “Electric. Digital. Connected.” strategy envisages shipping following the lead of automobiles and better exploiting battery power and higher levels of automation and autonomy. That said, each step in this process would have to prove its value in terms of improved operational efficiency or enhanced safety, or indeed, both.
While the debate around autonomous vessels and navigation rumbles on, we feel that too often it neglects to consider the fact that the power and drive trains of the ships also need to evolve, to accommodate an increasingly automated shipping business. Ships must sustain fault scenarios and self-heal and electric systems can be easily diagnosed and reconfigured in a secure manner, even remotely.
We also believe that the issues being debated on the future of autonomous ships may a little premature: chasing a hare that is not yet running, as it were. High levels of automation may indeed be appropriate where ships are operating on short distances close to shore and along repetitive routes, but that does not necessarily translate into a need for unmanned ships. Instead, a fully electric propulsion system, featuring batteries which are recharged by shore-side power, would likely mean lower continuous maintenance (no lubrication or filter changes, for example), which could be supported remotely, or by ad-hoc service visits.
More generally, we do not believe that the removal of ship crews from oceangoing vessels is imminent: as well as being on hand to take control of the vessel, crews will continue to be needed to look after duties such as machinery maintenance, administration, communications and port calls, to name but a few.
Rather than concentrating primarily on navigational safety issues, the ‘digital and connected’ ship debate should be focusing on the way electric propulsion can help automate aspects of ship functionality to the benefit of operating costs, safety and the environment.
Electric platform for intelligent ship
Already, shipboard sensors are routinely being used as a data source to optimise vessel operations and achieve just-in-time delivery, with energy consumption reduced to a minimum. ABB Ability Collaborative Operations Centers are now harnessing cloud-based analytics to help prevent, predict and rectify remote equipment problems. Each day, ABB collects gigabytes of data from more than 900 connected vessels, with shore-side experts offering remote support to engineers on board.
With sensor technology deployment costs falling fast as volumes increase, current and near-term developments are expected to include lifecycle techniques, such as service robotics and additive printing to enable automatic and autonomous service operations.
Elsewhere, the fast-developing LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology allows radar and cameras to be combined with positioning data to achieve highly accurate machine vision and navigation. Our solution, ABB Ability Marine Pilot Vision, was delivered for the first time last November to a harbour ferry operator in Helsinki. ABB Ability Marine Pilot Vision fuses system and sensor data to give the bridge team a 360-degree, third-party view of the vessel in a real-world environment – much like a car driver would see using advanced parking assist systems. This eliminates blind spots and helps prevent accidents and related costs.
We are also exploring technology that could support periodically unmanned bridge operations during uneventful parts of a voyage, with the clear objective of reducing fatigue and improving safety by enhancing the performance of crew when they are on the bridge.
As experience from consumer markets shows, attitudes as well as technologies need to mature for trust and confidence to proceed to “next level” usage. In the “step-by-step” scenario, the optimum electric, digital and connected technologies will be those that best support bridge teams in the safe delivery of ship and cargo, on schedule and with minimal environmental impact.
In the short term, these will be the technologies that support crews in achieving faster turnarounds in port and so allow for lower speeds to the next destination, thus saving fuel. They will be the technologies that speed up regulatory compliance and maintenance, or improve business-critical ship functions, such as maneuvering and mooring. And they will be the technologies that best support crews in their role as guardians, alert and able to intervene whenever safety, efficiency or environmental responsibility is compromised.
We believe that the technologies that we develop today will lay a solid foundation for the automated ships of tomorrow.
Snapshot biography: Mikko Lepistö
Mikko Lepistö is globally responsible for the software and automation business at ABB’s Marine and Ports business.
Mr Lepistö has held several global management positions within ABB in the service, automation and software businesses. With a background in software, automation and system technology and experience from the marine business, Mr Lepistö’s role is to develop the next generation of digital solutions and services to support the transition towards electric, digital and connected vessels. Mr Lepistö holds an M.Sc in automation and control technology from Helsinki University of Technology.