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The Future of Shipping is Autonomous

Many are looking forward to driverless cars in the future. The shipping industry is testing vessels without captains.

In 1898, Nikola Tesla blazed a trail in driverless vehicles by demonstrating the first radio-controlled model boat he called the teleautomaton. Over a century later, its namesake Tesla – Elon Musk’s popular electric car phenomena – is pioneering driverless cars.


But what if the Norwegian maritime industry could create the autonomous Google car of the sea?


That could help the country in its strategy to transfer 30% of transportation of goods from roads to sea, according to Hans Kristian Haram, Short Sea Promotion Center managing director. Autonomous ships would not only encourage shorter shipping voyages for the good of the environment, but also improve the competitiveness of the Norwegian shipping industry.


“This represents our possibility to come back as a great maritime nation,” said Haram during Tekna’s E-nav Conference on electronic navigation last September in Oslo.



Norwegian Fjord Test Bed


Kongsberg Seatex is already closer to making that a reality. The Norwegian company tested different types of autonomous shipping technology in the Trondheim fjord last June with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Maritime Robotics, and the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. As part of the trials, Kongsberg used its new communication system Maritime Broadband Radio to transmit HD video between unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles.


“The idea was to look at a sweep of different autonomous vehicles on a given operation,” said Gard Ueland, Kongsberg Seatex president, in an interview. 

“Communication between the devices was crucial.”


The company has further plans for several more cooperative projects with the university on control and sensor systems using autonomous vessels in the Trondheim fjord. The fjord at the northern city of Trondheim is ideal, both because of the light vessel traffic for safety considerations, but also the maritime competency in the area. Trondheim is home to the Ocean Space Centre, NTNU Center for Autonomous Operations and Services (AMOS), and SINTEF Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK).


The Norwegian Coastal Administration and Norwegian Maritime Directorate recently designated the Trondheim fjord last September as an official test site for autonomous shipping after an initiative by NTNU, Kongsberg Seatex, Kongsberg Maritime, MARINTEK and Maritime Robotics, in cooperation with the Port of Trondheim. The Norwegian Maritime Directorate and Norwegian Coastal Administration also established a Norwegian industry forum for autonomous and unmanned shipping with Industry Norway and MARINTEK last October.


Ueland says there are no such test sites of its kind yet in the world and shows the proactive thinking of the Norwegian maritime authorities. The Netherlands pioneered a similar initiative with cars in 2015 by amending its regulation to allow large-scale tests with self-driving cars and lorries on Dutch public roads.


“By establishing such an area, the Norwegian coastal authorities are taking the lead in a changing maritime world,” said Ueland. “We are seeing how autonomy is coming into vehicles on land. I think we will see some massive changes in the future coming in smart ships that will make it more efficient and safe. We will also see technology that that has the potential to make fully autonomous cargo vessels.”


Driverless electric passenger ferry
NTNU is developing the world’s first driverless electric passenger ferry in Trondheim.Source: Svein Aanond Aanondsen, NTNU Department of Marine Technology


Driverless Ferry on Demand


Trondheim could also become the first city to have its own fully autonomous electric passenger ferry on demand. NTNU has proposed a driverless boat that can transport 12 people in the tiny channel between Ravnkloa and Vestre Kanalhavn just by be pressing on a call button on either side. 


The 100-meter crossing takes only a mere minute, but it would offer immense benefits. The ferry solution would cost NOK 5 million -- one tenth the price tag of building a bridge – save pedestrians and bikers from having to walk the 500 meters around to the other side, and throw in a water experience as a bonus.


“It would be a unique way to get a short feel of the harbor environment,” said Egil Eide, NTNU associate professor electronics and telecommunications.


There are currently driverless ferries that use cables or chains for short crossings. The proposed ferry by NTNU would fully navigate autonomously without such anchors. Instead it has collision detectors to allow other boats to pass along the channel. A bridge would have interrupted the flow of boat traffic, plus required personnel to operate the bridge.


“This is much more flexible (than a bridge), much more scalable and cheaper,” said Eide.


So far NTNU has worked with the scale model of the ferry and are now moving on with the second stage of building a development platform. The plan is to test an unmanned prototype in the first half of 2017 to test traffic behavior with the hopes of having a full-scale model in operation by 2019.


Rolls-Royce Marine

Rolls-Royce Marine is part of the AAWA (Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Application) initiative led by FinFerries Source: Rolls-Royce


Disruptive Changes


Rolls-Royce Marine vice president of innovations, Oskar Levanger believes these types of local ferries will be the first in future autonomous ships. Gradually there will be more types of vessels with combinations of remotely operated and autonomous functions. By 2035 there will be unmanned ocean going vessels, he predicts.


“We will see some big changes and it will be a game changer,” said Levanger during his presentation at e-nav. “It’s basically driven by digitalization.”


Rolls-Royce Marine is part of the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications initiative launched last June. In connection with the project, Finferries will carry out a series of tests of sensor arrays in a range of operating and climatic conditions on board its 65-meter ferry Stella, which operates between Korpo and Houtskär. ESL Shipping Ltd and classification company DNV GL are also partners in the project. 


Separately, DNV GL has also been involved in developing its own unmanned short-sea concept called ReVolt. The 60-meter vessel will be fully battery powered and have a cargo capacity of 100 twenty-foot containers. A 1:20 scaled model is being tested at NTNU to research sensor fusion and collision avoidance. 

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