Wärtsilä and Rolls-Royce launch eco marine technology to boost shipping automation
Namrata Nadkarni, deputy executive editor | 8 April 2018
Rolls-Royce Intelligent Awareness System
Rolls-Royce IA system (pictured) uses sensors to give seafarers a 3D model of nearby vessels and hazards. Credit: Rolls-Royce
Shipping is known for being an industry that is reticent to embrace change, seemingly adhering to the colloquial saying of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Although the aerospace, automotive, and rail industries have pushed ahead with technical advances that have seen them embrace automation in a big way – with driverless trains seen as commonplace and testing of unmanned cars gathering momentum globally – many vessel owners and operators have voiced strong opinions in favour of retaining crew on board ships. Examples include Ardmore Shipping’s chief operating officer Mark Cameron, who feels that it is pointless to discuss automation without first improving reliability and also CTM’s John Michael Radziwill, who thinks that cargo owners will continue to value having crew on board.
While a global fleet of unmanned vessels may still be over the horizon, leading equipment manufacturers have accelerated the process of laying the technological building blocks that will see the internet of things (IoT), big data, and artificial intelligence take a larger role in vessels’ decision-making processes, while also connecting the various stakeholders in the maritime world, including shore-side parties. As such, delivery of these smart products means that it will not be long before the commercial incentives to adopt automation outweigh operators’ personal preferences.
Both Wärtsilä and Rolls-Royce, which have been eschewing their traditional roles as engine makers and moving into a wider technology space, have recently unveiled solutions that allow assisted navigation and vessel operations. The former announced its intent to acquire navigation-focused technology group Transas in March for USD258 million, with the purchase likely to conclude in the second quarter of 2018.
The acquisition will enable the Finnish giant to manifest its vision of a ‘smart marine ecosystem’ that sees a greater interconnectedness of shore and ship.
“Our angle for our smart marine ecosystem is to optimise sailing across the entire supply chain, from vessel operations to port operations and logistics. What we are really looking to do is connect the dots for our customers,” Roger Holm, president, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions told Fairplay. He added that most vessels currently operate independently and are thus liable to see high fuel consumption and emissions, while adhering to prescriptive maintenance routines and rely on human experience. “Basically, what we see right now is inefficiency and the opportunity to make changes to the maritime environment that will really benefit our clients.”
The new approach aims to eliminate overcapacity (by capacity sharing), inadequate port-to-port fuel efficiency (through smart ships that harness big data analytics), and time wasted waiting when entering ports and other high traffic areas (through intelligent traffic management systems).
“In the future, intelligent vessels will probably be equipped with hybrid solutions for power production and take into account the weather and other factors impacting routes,” he explained. “Each element will be more efficient, reliable, and less of a burden on the environment thanks to its ability to connect to the other parts in the system.”
Wärtsilä is already involved in a number of projects for inter-connected ships. Although Holm was unable to share specific details of the projects at this stage because of commercial reasons, he revealed that one of the ideas being explored was the auto-docking of vessels – a concept also being explored by Rolls-Royce – that would see vessels use constantly updated port information to enable safe berthing and departure of ships without human intervention.
Wärtsilä’s plan for the industry is one that it claims can be delivered with existing technology from Transas and at ports – an aspect that it believes will appeal to stakeholders far more than Rolls Royce’s unmanned ship concept, which it argues will require significant investment in technology and extensive regulation before it can transition to reality.
This view was shared by Transas chief executive officer Frank Coles, who said, “You can talk about autonomous ships all you like, but until you build the infrastructure, you still need traffic systems, smart ports, and smarter ships.”
He believes that the newer generations of maritime stakeholders are eager to invest in the development of greener technology and more efficient ships, and feels that these conversations must take precedence to those about unmanned ships. “Instead of telling shipowners that they are going to be autonomous and keep talking about the technology, what we need is a practical solution about how this will work and to provide the business case.
“You need to balance the vision with the practicality of what it means in the real world,” he said, adding that Rolls-Royce was promoting its unmanned vessel technology for reasons that had nothing to do with the actual needs of the industry. “It’s well known that Rolls-Royce wants to sell its business, so this is just marketing speak to up the price for when they sell,” he maintained to Fairplay, referencing the fact that the ailing company announced a strategic review of its commercial marine operations in January, with a sale being one of the options under consideration.
“To say that all of shipping will be unmanned is a misrepresentation. We need to stop misleading the industry with hype about autonomy and give them an accurate idea what the industry will look like,” he explained, adding that, in his view, unmanned vessels will not see appeal in the wider maritime world and are likely to stay confined to small ecosystems that have point-to-point operations, such as coastal shipping.
“Owners don’t just want to be disrupted, they are looking for solutions,” he said, adding that looking at autonomous vessels in isolation without factoring in smart ports was foolhardy, particularly given the warm welcome that China’s One Belt, One Road initiative was receiving. “Smart ports already make sense and if ships want to be relevant in tomorrow’s supply chain, they need to improve their efficiency and impact – not just be autonomous.”
However, Rolls-Royce believes that Wärtsilä’s efforts to set up a smart marine ecosystem are actually complimentary to its market vision and will organically expose operators to the benefits of remotely operated and automated ships.
Senior vice-president for concepts and innovation Oskar Levandar told Fairplay, “Ship intelligence is broader than remote and autonomous ships. We are talking about intelligent asset management as a wider concept. We fully believe in our vision for remote and autonomous vessels, and part of these will be unmanned ships, for which we are seeing both the business case and market interest.
“Intelligent awareness is one of the core building blocks to autonomous shipping. I think that we are very aligned with Wärtsilä in many things, but connecting things doesn’t automatically lead to optimisation, which is why we provide owners with value by showing exactly how our intelligent ships will work,” he added.
A major step in the process, he said, was the launch of the Rolls-Royce Intelligent Awareness (IA) system in early March. The system works to provide sophisticated situational awareness by fusing multiple sensors with intelligent software to create a 3D model of the vessels and nearby hazards, and thus assist seafarers in navigating in conditions that they would otherwise find challenging, such as operating at night, in adverse weather conditions, or in congested waterways.
The technology, which is being trialled in partnership with Stena Lines and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), fuses data from multiple sources (including Light Detection and Ranging [LIDAR], ECDIS, and GPS) to provide a comprehensive overview of the vessel’s external situation in four user interface modes: Virtual Reality (2D and 3D), Augmented Reality, and Precision mode.
“The IA system forms part of our ongoing development of the autonomous ship, but we decided to make the technology available today as it offers real benefits to the existing shipping environment,” said Iiro Lindborg, Rolls-Royce, general manager of remote and autonomous operations. “We can create a point cloud of the environment with centimetre accuracy to discover both, other vessels and fixed objects like dockings, gangways, lighthouses, etc. We can create our own rotating view of the situation and see it from different angles, assessing hazards in real time.”
He told Fairplay that the ability to livestream the data to the offices of operators or other stakeholders meant that operators would benefit from a wider support network. “Also, the IA data is stored in the cloud and if a situation was difficult [to deal with], it can be played back to train other crews or if your insurers want to see it.”
The IA system has already completed trials for a plug-and-play version onboard ro-pax ferry Stena Jutlandica, which operates between Frederikshavn and Gothenburg. The operator is currently in talks with the equipment manufacturer regarding installation of a more permanent solution.
Rolls-Royce will also shortly install the system on board MOL vessel Sunflower for a two-week trial. The 165 m passenger ferry operates between Kobe and Oita, Japan, via the Akashi Kaikyo, Bisan Seto, and Kurushima straits.
“Sunflower operates in some of the most congested waters in the world and will provide an opportunity to test rigorously Rolls-Royce’s IA system,” MOL director Kenta Arai said. “This can give our crews an enhanced decision support tool, increasing their safety, and that of our vessels.”
Operators looking to avail themselves of the IA system would be required to pay for installation of the equipment, which would vary depending on the vessel size, as well as a fixed monthly fee that would encompass chart licences and software updates. It is likely that the Wärtsilä solution would also operate on a subscription model (monthly or annually) that would see updates from all the companies that are part of its ecosystem.
Both solutions rely on the ability for ships to be constantly connected to the internet, which is a fundamental shift in terms of risk-perception and liability for the industry, as shore-side parties and technology have a greater involvement in the decision-making process. Additionally, the greater transparency and the use of digital platforms will mean that the industry is likely to see greater integration in to the wider logistics chain and may also see involvement from cargo owners.
“What we are talking about is allowing the maritime industry to catch up with the shipping and logistics part of our industry and also the airline sector,” explained Coles, adding that the changes would enable the sector to keep pace with the needs of e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Alibaba, which are very quick to adapt to changing market conditions.
Levander took this argument a step further, pointing out that the ability to dictate steps of the operation would incentivise cargo providers to take on more control of the assets themselves. “The end customer will want to integrate with shipping and the supply chain, so the IoT will allow the cargo owner to have a bigger say. The discussion will not focus on running ships at the lowest fuel costs, as that doesn’t help the end customer. The real focus will be on preventing disruption to the supply chain, which means that cargo owners will look to stop relying on external vessel owners and take on more control themselves.
“I would not be surprised if we end up with a model similar to aerospace, where we see a few companies own standardised assets in the way that Boeing or Airbus does,” he stated, adding that technology is quickly removing the need for middlemen such as shipbrokers. “The digital market place is the real game changer. There is big scope for disruption. Every day we are redefining what shipping will be for the future.”
He is convinced that the combination of increased safety and sustainability along with reduced costs and risk will act as drivers towards greater automation that will seamlessly transition to remotely operated/autonomous ships, and eventually to unmanned vessels. “We are already on commission to develop designs for specific owners,” he said, adding that while the technology for unmanned vessels already exists, it would take time for a regulatory framework to catch up. “It’s time for a change in the industry, and the revolution is here.”
While the financial incentives for equipment manufacturers to move to this new operating model are clear, the arguments they are making cannot be easily dismissed as mere sales talk. The safety and operational advantages of using guided navigation, advanced routing, and data-driven decision-making are increasingly evident, particularly to parties such as insurers, cargo owners, and regulators – all of whom can exert financial pressure on operators.
With much of the technology already delivered at relatively low cost, the argument to adapt is already shifting from ‘why’ to ‘why not’. As such, there is little doubt that the next decade will see the shipping industry pulled in to line with its other transport compatriots in to a ‘smarter’ future.