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Evolution of autonomous maritime operations driven by automation technology and digitalisation

Author Kimmo Matikka
Posted on

Background, prerequisite and first visions of autonomous ships

Radio communication for maritime industry started to develop in the beginning of 1900. 1910-1970 was the period for development of radio communication, gyro compass, radar and heading control. By marine electronics development, 1970-1995 route graphics on radar display, track control, conning displays, GMDSS and GPS and electronic chart systems were developed.

Development of integrated navigation systems started already in 70’s but, it can be said that the navigation system integration really started in the beginning of the 80’s by available electronic devices and systems, followed by speed control and AIS-systems in late 80’s. Study of “Ship of the Future” started in 1980.

Meanwhile navigation and communication systems got more automated, control and functions of machinery systems started to be based on automation as well, thanks to better sensor technology and computers. Today, in modern vessels, almost everything is controlled via ship’s automation system (IAMCS) with protective functions for the equipment. The system might take care of thousands of I/O channels. That alloys automated HVAC systems, diesel electric propulsion and power plant with Power Management System (PMS) etc. Everything is mostly automated which the ship’s crew controls and makes corrective actions and orders.

Vision of autonomous ships published already before ship systems started to get automated. As early as 1970´s, vision of autonomous ships was launched by Rolf Schonknecht in his book “Ships and Shipping of Tomorrow”.

Progress of autonomous maritime operations  development

There are several names and definitions for different types of automated ships with different level of autonomy; remotely controlled, unmanned, autonomous etc. IMO has also defined different levels for Maritime Unmanned Surface Ships (MASS). Unmanned ship can be remotely controlled or autonomous, but autonomous ship must be able to operate without human assistance, though it is monitored by crew onboard or shore based Shore Control Center (SCC). As nowadays, most of the ship systems are highly automated, there is still a lot of work to create such a complete and absolute wholeness with algorithms, artificial Intelligent and machine learning, to fulfill all functions and circumstances which might occur in maritime operations. Maritime environment is much more complicated and variable than the road network onshore. The responsibility matter, if something unexpected happens, is not adequately solved yet.

Japan had a project in 1982-1988 to develop a highly reliable, intelligent and automated operational systems in maritime operations, remotely controlled from shore based control station. Korea started to research an Unmanned Autonomous Surface Vessels for maritime survey and surveillance in 2011. European MUNIN project 2012, REVOLT by DNV-GL 2013-2018, AAWA project led by Rolls-Royce 2015, Lloyd’s Register Guidance 2016, MOL project for Autonomous Ocean Transport System 2017, just to mention few projects. The World’s first Autonomous Shipping Company Masterly established in 2018 by Kongsberg and Wilhelmsen.

Autonomous Maritime Ecosystem
Picture 1: One Sea Autonomous Maritime Ecosystem

2019-2020 some full scale (tug boat and archipelago ferry) tests of remotely operated and autonomous vessels have been performed. Thus some companies have had plausible and illustrative demos about autonomous vessels for high seas, eagerness has settled down towards short voyages close to the coast, rivers and city areas. For long term, environmental friendliness and ecological efficiency, might cause restrictions for propulsion power and speed, which might support the struggle towards autonomous and unmanned shipping.

Technology companies and developers have been worried about slow reaction of authorities to get this issue forward, to achieve regulations for autonomous shipping operations. But as seen, local authorities gave permit to test autonomous operations in certain pointed areas. They don’t want to prevent the development progress, but technology drives the way. Around 2015-2020 hype of autonomous ships pushed IMO to concentrate on legislation for autonomous vessels more deeply. Regarding regulation, IMO takes first step to address autonomous ships and defines Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) in 2018, DNV GL released guidelines for Autonomous and Remotely Operated ships. Now at IMO, there is an evaluation projects for needs and content of regulation for autonomous ships and operations according to their strategic plan 2018-2023.

Automation technology of ship systems lead the way of autonomous maritime operations

Ship system providers develop automation in their own product portfolio and that is probably strongest accelerator in contest of achieving autonomous systems and fighting against challenges in this complicated operating environment. Few years ago, hype of autonomous ships and digital transformation spread in many countries, not least in European countries. There have been several research and development projects, tests and real projects to build autonomous ships as well. Nevertheless, it seem not to be as easy. Well known project “Yara Birkeland”, 120 TEU container vessel, is one example of the complexity of this kind of vessel and operation. Even it is meant to sail only short voyages in restricted area at coast of Norway, the wholeness is still complex. The project is still alive and most probably to be succeeded, but to be postponed. Initial goal was to start operation in 2019 and to be fully autonomous in 2020. The latest published schedule is to be in test run period during 2020, in operation 2021 and fully autonomous in 2022. The hull is already on the way to delivery shipyard for outfitting. The Yara Birkeland is aimed to be  zero emission vessel, and also loading and unloading is planned to be autonomous.

Yara Birkland
Picture 2: Yara Birkeland
https://www.yara.com/news-and-media/media-library/image-library/

MacGregor responded to their customer request to develop an autonomous crane for ESL-Shipping. The autonomous discharging crane system for bulk cargo operates driverless, controlled from the command bridge. That is one impressive example how the wholeness is knitting together by individual equipment and systems, one by one.

Today, there are such a wide range of automated and autonomous systems available, that major players have good opportunities to integrate and deliver all the needed systems for fully autonomous vessels intended for short voyages in restricted areas. Vessels to be more integrated and connected by digitalization, they come more autonomous regardless they have crew on board or not. Lot of effort has been made to develop algorithms and AI. For example, ABB, Wärtsilä and Kongsberg with partners have all the opportunities to achieve this goal in the near future. It is stated in many sources, that autonomous vessels will sail within next few decades. Nevertheless, it will grow up step by step, according to the development of individual system provides. Next steps to be, is to have autonomous systems which supports the crew in their actions and decision making. But in the beginning, crew onboard or at control stations ashore, utilizes the support of autonomous systems and still have the control of the ship. Autonomous shipping and autonomous maritime operations doesn’t only mean the autonomous ship. Fairways and harbor areas have to integrate to wholeness of autonomous operations too, including piloting and VTS control, berthing and cargo operations.

Regardless of the operational format, autonomous, remotely operated/controlled or traditionally operated by crew of the ship, the vessel need to be engineered any way. Elomatic Consulting and Engineering Ltd is looking forward to be a partner for ship owners and shipyards in ship design engineering processes in all phases, meeting future needs.

Elomatic has competitive teams for hull design, outfitting and machinery engineering, and for electricity, automation and interior design as well. Elomatic has also a strong team for visualization and simulation. Personnel of Elomatic consist of versatile experience with strong knowledge of design engineering and project management, and operational experience as well, like deck officers, master mariner (Captain) and maritime engineers with long sailing career.

Kimmo Matikka

Project Manager, Marine & Offshore

Intelligent Engineering

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Does the ship design project benefit from Digital Twin approach?

Author Juhani Kankare
Posted on

I have been thinking what benefits shipowner and yard gets if they start concentrating to digital twin approach at early design phase. At least then virtual ship will be matching the real one more accurately. It will be ready with less effort at the end; when it has been built during the design phase. Project management can follow visually the maturity of the design. But can the ship design project’s decision making also benefit from the digital twin concept?

Safety and Emergency scenarios

For example emergency related scenario animations like safety and evacuation simulations. This information will be beneficial for designing the ship but also later when training the crew. Having good visual animation helps all parties to understand better what kind of issues or bottle necks passengers or crew faces in real life. At the  design phase the designer can find out better solutions when seeing animations from different scenarios to ensuring most secure options.

Smoke and flow simulations

Other example is visual animations from design phases like CFD results of selected technologies. Exhaust gas animation, smoking areas or other similar simulations may help later the crew to understand limitation of activities.

Design reviews, architect reviews

Digital twin supports more effective decisions making due to level of details possible to review. Architect and owner can have a virtually review of different areas like restaurants, casinos or cabins. The  virtual review enables possibility to have many different solutions compared to physical models. It also allows people to use more time with the sample designs due to they can use it at the own office via VR or just from own computer display. The building up virtual sample of areas is much faster and cost efficient way than building in real samples. Also there can be many different solutions in a review when there are no limit of physical space. Later these selected models can be opened and re-check if needed.

Decisions faster and more accurately

Design- and architect reviews are held due to need of making big decisions related to manufacturing and equipment investments. Using digital twin reduces costs and risks due to better understanding of the details and gives more tools to make accurate decision. Having access to design information is good but the ability to visualize information provides additional level of knowledge.

Production phase

Often the design areas are divided to many small parts in case of technology and physical location. It is beneficial to have direct link between production and design houses. Digital twin can be used to point problematic areas with your virtual finger on discussions. The ship builders can manage changes more efficient way when the errors can be corrected faster and even with less bureaucracy.

It can be also set up alerts to some areas or parts to show problems in specific areas between production and design. Project management may follow the progress visually from virtual ship.

Nowadays there are need to set up systems supporting global activities since there can be many limitations to physical meetings. Digital Twin may even allow sometimes reason not to meet when the information is commonly available via cloud to everybody’s terminals.

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Juhani Kankare

Juhani Kankare has worked in consumer electronics, telecommunications and in marine electrical design. Juhani joined Elomatic in early 2019 and holds the position of Design Manager, Ship Electrical Engineering Team at the Elomatic Turku office.

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Fuel cells

Author Tobias Eriksson
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The marine industry is well-known to be a significant source of harmful local (NOx, SOx and particulates) and global (mainly CO2 and CH4) emissions. The high emissions are a result of the traditional low grade “bunker fuels” used, which mainly consist of residuals and low-grade distillates.  In recent years, however, public pressure regarding air pollution and climate change has caused governments and authorities to take action to reduce them. As a result, stricter regulations encourage the ship industry to find new clean fuels and/or energy efficient solutions to meet the progressing limits on pollutant emissions.

Making the transition to an alternative fuel in shipping is a major undertaking, but likely required if the set emission reduction goals shall be achieved. As the marine industry is finding itself under pressure on mitigating harmful emissions, it is no longer a question if, but rather when a transition to alternative cleaner fuels will take off. When it realizes, it can offer a good fundament for introducing new alternative technologies for power production onboard. One interesting and potential technology that could play a key role to mitigate harmful local emissions from ships are fuel cells. Fuel cells have, similar to hydrogen experienced a hype cycle before, but thus far the commercialization and widespread interest in marine use has remained low. This, however, could change if new fuels in shipping are to be introduced.

Fuel cells are electrochemical conversion devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel directly into electrical energy. The process of converting chemical reactions directly into electrical energy offers some unique advantages compared to an internal combustion engine, where conversion of chemical energy goes through thermal and mechanical work before converting into electrical energy. Since there is no combustion involved, fuel cells can produce power with less formation of pollutants. Furthermore, due to the lack of internal moving parts in fuel cells, means they generate very little noise and vibrations during operation. Fuel cells could therefore be an effective solution to also reduce the destructive low-frequency underwater noise radiated from ships machinery, which is known to have both short- and long-term negative consequences on marine life.

A basic fuel cell mainly consists of three active components: two electrodes, i.e. an anode and a cathode, and an electrolyte sandwiched between them. To produce electricity, fuel is fed continuously to the anode, and an oxidizing agent, typically air, is fed to the cathode. The electrochemical reactions take place at the electrodes, producing an electric DC current through the electrolyte. The working principle of a fuel cell resembles a battery. But unlike a battery, which consumes its reactants and oxidant and must be recharged when depleted, a fuel cell will continue to produce electricity as long as fuel and oxygen is supplied to the cell.

Fuel Cell Working Principle
Fuel Cell Working Principle

Fuel cells can be classified into different categories, but the most common classification is based on what electrolyte is used and includes five major groups:

  • Alkaline fuel cell – AFC
  • Phosphoric acid fuel cell – PAFC
  • Proton exchange membrane fuel cell –PEMFC
  • Molten carbonate fuel cell – MCFC
  • Solid oxide fuel cell – SOFC

Regardless of which electrolyte is used, a fuel cell system consist of more components than the fuel cell stack itself. The additional auxiliary components required to generate the electrical power from the stack are often referred to as the balance of plant. The stack and balance of plant together form what is generally referred to as a fuel cell unit, or a fuel cell system.

Forget the typical ship machinery compartment layout. Fuel cells modular design give them some unique features that could revolutionize the conventional shipbuilding. Unlike a combustion engine, fuel cell efficiency and load factor is not dependent on system size, which means the performance of a single cell is not different from a large stack. The excellent modularity means that the range of application from less than 1W power outputs up to multi-MW power generation systems is possible. This neat feature means the power production from fuel cells can be distributed over the ship as smaller units, e.g. one fuel cell module per main fire zone. The advantage of a de-centralized powerplant solution is reduced electricity transport losses and improved redundancy.

Hydrogen would be the ideal choice for fuel cell operation, but the characteristics of hydrogen arguably makes it a challenging fuel for marine use. In general, fuel cells can only utilize fuels that are hydrogen-rich and in gaseous phase. This essentially means that none of the current used bunker fuels (i.e. HFO and MGO) are compatible with fuel cells. Fuel requirements also vary depending on the fuel cell technology but typically, the lower the operating temperature of the fuel cell is, the more stringent are the fuel requirements. The chosen fuel will ultimately decide which fuel cell technology may be suitable to use. With so many different types of ships on the water, however,” no one-solution-fits-all” exist. For instance could the hydrogen-fuelled, low temperature fuel cells such as the PEM-based fuel cells be suitable candidates for ships with short autonomy requirements, e.g. small ferries and river boats. Whereas for deep-sea shipping and ships with high power demand (e.g. cruise ships) on the other hand require significant volumes of fuel onboard, which quite quickly rules out hydrogen as a suitable fuel. For such applications the high temperature fuel cells like the solid oxide or molten carbonate fuel cells could be more viable options, as they are more flexible in fuel choices and could utilize fuels already relevant for shipping, e.g. LNG, methanol, truck diesel, and also ammonia has been proven feasible options. The higher operating temperature of the SOFC and MCFC also means high-quality waste heat can be recovered, which further improves the overall plant efficiency.

Fuel cells are still a novel technology, which also is reflected in their price. They are expensive, and not just slightly, but an order of magnitude too expensive to be competitive. To promote fuel cell development, cost reduction, and market deployment, fuel cells are still dependent on state and federal tax incentive programs to help offset their current high system cost. The two major reasons why fuel cells are so expensive are also closely interlinked: low production volumes and expensive constituent materials (such as platinum in some fuel cells). Without widespread adoption of the technology, prices will remain high. The high cost is also closely related to the relative short lifetime of the current fuel cells stacks, which varies from 2000 up to 40 000 h depending on the technology and application. In marine applications, where the powerplant basically is close to year-round in operation means stack replacements would have to be carried out quite frequently with current expected lifetimes. In several lifecycle analysis, however, fuel cells have proven to be cost-competitive, if the key issues related to the initial high investment costs and expensive periodic stack replacements could be addressed.

Adapting fuel cells to marine applications is technically challenging, but by no means unfeasible. Earlier demonstration projects have proven that majority of the fuel cell technologies are suitable for marine use. The biggest chicken-and-egg problem the fuel cells are facing, however, is the lack of fuel cell compatible fuels in the marine industry. Fuel cell suppliers may therefore not see the marine market large enough to be a strategic and profitable investment, and the interest of developing fuel cells specifically for marine use has not been prioritized. Additionally, there’s the common dilemma for any new and unproven technology that “no one wants to be the first customer, and no one wants to be the second or third either”. To overcome these issues, a deep understanding of the market and a striking idea is needed. At Elomatic, we can help with both, let’s collect the pieces of the chicken-and-egg puzzle together!

Tobias Eriksson

Project Engineer

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