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Autonomous Vessels: Modern Ferries Evolve

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

January 23, 2018

Credit: Stuart Isett for Vigor

Credit: Stuart Isett for Vigor

Automated now; autonomous looms large in the center porthole.

The word ‘autonomous’ is probably the maritime industry’s most frequently used term in the past year. The word, however, has a far different meaning than the similarly sounding “automated” – which means that certain processes are handled by machines, rather than by humans. Throughout 2017, industry thought leaders have been mulling over the new digital paradigms that are emerging including the ‘Internet of Things’ and/or the linkage of processes and machines – the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – where devices talk to each other, and other emerging disrupters. 
When & Where
Dr. Roar Adland, Professor at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), and Chairman of the Shipping Department, parsed the relative economic value (focusing on reduced crewing costs) among shipping sectors. He wrote, in early 2017: “All told, unmanned vessels would likely have a role to play in coastal and shortsea shipping, where port-time and crew costs takes up a relatively large share, and where accommodation takes up a relatively larger part of the vessel.”
These ideas are no longer just lofty concepts; tangible projects employing them have moved from the drawing board to reality. Even crewless vessels are no longer the stuff of futurists; on the west coast of Norway – an area where emissions are prohibited – in the “Fjord1” project, two battery powered passenger/car carrying ferries will shuttle the 1.5 mile stretch across the Nordfjord (about 100 miles north of Bergen), linking Anda and Lote. Human captains aboard the vessels, to be delivered in early 2018, will handle dockings only.
In a mid-November speech at the Annual General Meeting of the American Institute of Marine Underwriters (AIMU), Christopher Wiernicki, ABS Chairman, President and CEO, explained that “An autonomous ship … is a marine vessel with sensors, automated navigation, propulsion and auxiliary systems, with the decision logic necessary to follow plans, sense the environment, adjust execution for the environment, and potentially operate without human intervention.”
For the ferry sector, Rolls Royce’s VP of Innovation, Oskar Levander explained, in his 2016 presentation to Interferry, “Smart Ferries - The era of ship intelligence,” the pathway towards autonomous ferry operation can be packaged into five steps:
  • Automatic crossings
  • Situational awareness
  • Automatic docking
  • Remote watch
  • Remote/automatic
A remote/automatic ferry operation is, he says, likely to emerge in the 2020-2022 timeframe. When describing the Fjord1 effort, Levander made the explicit link between automation and sustainability, saying, “You do not want to waste too much time and energy with batteries, this is very important because the batteries need to be operated in the most efficient way.”
In an observation that comports with Levander’s view, Wiernicki observed in his address to the AIMU, “The journey from automated to autonomous is complicated but logical.” Wiernicki’s ABS colleague, Dr. Kirsi Tikka, speaking in December, amplified, saying, “If implemented correctly, evolutionary development will introduce significant benefits to shipping at each phase, before we reach autonomy on a larger scale.”
Levander’s presentation stressed the safety aspects of automated operation. There is also a powerful environmental driver fueling the automation trend, as evidenced by the Fjord1 project- where Rolls Royce ‘AutoCrossing’ control systems, guide ‘Azipull’ bow and stern thrusters aboard the vessel. Beyond this, the vessels are ‘future-proofed’ in that automated docking systems could be added later. 
Across the Big Pond
Washington State Ferries (WSF), among the largest ferry operators in North America, is looking to the future. Matthew von Ruden, WSF’s Director of Vessel Engineering and Maintenance, told Marine News in December, “WSF operates 22 vessels and moves nearly 24 million passengers annually. Our top priority is passenger safety. We set the bar high for both service reliability and On-Time Performance and generally meet or exceed these goals in spite of tight budget restrictions.” 
With an average age of 30 years, the WSF fleet is being renewed. von Ruden, whose career includes service with the U.S. Coast Guard and in the shipbuilding side of the private sector, adds, “…we also have our new Olympic Class ferries – the fourth of which is scheduled for delivery in July 2018.”
Also on the West Coast, Vancouver-based BC Ferries is also contemplating what comes next. Captain Jamie Marshall, the ferry giant’s Vice President of Business Development and Innovation, explained, “We continue to look at automation to improve safety and take advantage of new and developing technologies.” And, as new technologies emerge, companies are collaborating, Marshall adds, “BC Ferries is working with other ferry operators in Canada as part of the Canadian Ferry Association to stay informed on the latest developments in automation and potential improvements to ferry operations.”
As newer vessels enter ferry fleets, automation is being incorporated into operations in new ways. At BC Ferries, for example, fire monitors can be operated without putting the fire team near the fire, which keeps them away from the danger.” Automation plays in important role in safety, says Marshall. “Automated Identification Systems (AIS) now allows our bridge teams to see around corners like in Active Pass and know exact positions of other marine traffic allowing the Captain and bridge teams to make the best decisions with respect to safe passing.” WSDOT’s von Ruden agrees. “The alarm and monitoring system is a PLC based system that employs logic in monitoring thousands of equipment and system parameters. We are investigating a cloud-based data analytics system for alerts, notifications, diagnostics and trending as well.” 
von Ruden went on to say, “In our new Olympic class vessels, we employ automation in our propulsion, electrical and alarm and monitoring systems. The propulsion plant for the double-ended ferry consists of two geared diesels, coupled through a high speed shaft, driving a controllable pitch propeller at each end. The propulsion control system includes automation for load sharing and shedding through variation in engine speed and propeller pitch. Our electrical switchgear includes electrical load sharing and load shedding functionality.” 
As automation moves further into WFS processes, there is still work to be done. For example, WFS is searching for an automation solution for counting of both ‘walk on’ passengers and passengers in vehicles “We recently piloted a passenger counting system at our busiest terminal, Seattle’s Colman Dock. We were unable to achieve our target for accuracy, however, so we will keep looking for a solution, ” von Ruden conceded. The customer side of the business also figures in BC Ferries’ thinking. Captain Marshall provided a view from the perspective of ferry riders, saying: “Automation also helps improve the customer experience like giving our passengers choices such as using automated self-ticketing kiosks or interacting with one of our customer service agents.”  
Beyond Money: Capturing Efficiencies
Docking, a midterm target in Levander’s taxonomy, also enters into the WSF thinking, with von Ruden telling Marine News: “In the future, we are interested in a vessel restraint system, as we currently rely on ships propulsion to “push the dock” during vehicle and passenger loading. Also, we are interested in converting three of our ferries to hybrid electric propulsion. If that project is funded, we will need to employ automation to connect the medium voltage power from the terminal to the vessel to facilitate battery charging.” Summing up, he said that: “WSF is interested in other automation solutions that can contribute to the safety or efficiency of our system.”
BC Ferries’ Captain Marshall also stressed the role of automation for the sake of improvement (not simply to save money on crew costs), insisting, “Human factors continue to be one of the largest contributors to marine incidents and accidents and as the automobile industry is incorporating automation to improve safety and reduce accidents, the ferry sector is looking to be in a position to benefit in a similar manner.”
(As published in the January 2018 edition of Marine News)

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