future view

The best helmsmen work on shore

23 November 2017 • 3 min reading time

Water as a way to attain innovative and sustainable growth. This is the goal of the blue route of the National Science Agenda, in which important trends such as increased safety through autonomous shipping are key. TNO is working with many major players in the maritime sector to capitalize on the economic opportunities present in these technological developments.

It all started with Truck Platooning, in which convoys of two or more trucks drive safely and automatically with less than 10 metres of space between them. This technology has been developed to the point where it is being tested on public roads. One of the biggest challenges is devising a way to deal safely with as many unexpected scenarios as possible. “A vehicle may cut in ahead of you, traffic may suddenly slow down or the road surface may be slippery in patches”, explains Maurice Kwakkernaat of TNO. “If you’re aware of all the potential scenarios, then you can design a vehicle to be ‘streetwise’. The same applies to autonomous shipping: how do you ensure that a ship can safely handle unexpected events?”

Making autonomous shipping a reality

Autonomous shipping can make use of the expertise that has been amassed in the development of autonomous driving. But there are a number of pronounced differences. TNO’s Maurits Huisman explains: “An example that comes to mind is the IT infrastructure. At sea you simply don’t have the connectivity and bandwidth that we take for granted in terrestrial applications like in automated driving. What’s more, a big vessel is far less agile than a passenger car. This means that you have to put a lot more advance thought into resolving a situation before the various systems arrive at a safe decision. We can make this possible with tech that identifies risks in advance. It also means that operators working in shore support centres have a crucial role to play.”

Economic opportunities

As part of a TKI Dinalog project, TNO is working with ten inland shipping companies and other interested parties to identify economic opportunities. Another joint-industry project aims to demonstrate an autonomous vessel in 2018. Partners in this project are TU Delft, MARIN, TNO, a number of companies, service providers and maritime training programmes. “Parts of the technology are already in place to make autonomous shipping possible,” says Marnix Krikke, Innovation & Human Capital Director of the Netherlands Maritime Technology sector association. “But we still have choices to make before we can integrate these various elements into workable solutions. What decisions do you entrust to intelligent systems, and what do you want the human operator to do? TNO is the ideal partner for us thanks to their combined expertise in the areas of the human factor, technology, business cases and regulations.”

“A joint-industry project aims to demonstrate an autonomous vessel in 2018”

Phased introduction of autonomous shipping

Krikke is committed to a phased introduction of autonomous shipping. “Over the next ten years we will implement it in niches that lend themselves to this new technology, such as security for offshore windfarms and dredging operations. Coordination of activities like these can be easily managed from shore. Another potential application is in regular routes along the coast, as they’re already doing in Norway. In general, we envisage a more robust advisory role for shore-based systems, thus lightening the workload for crew and technical personnel. Software is just as good at avoiding collisions as a professional navigator studying a radar screen.”

Steering ships from shore

Shore support involves a shore-based operator controlling a number of ships. This is the most likely scenario for the future as the technology develops. Pieter Boersma of TNO elucidates: “At TNO’s facilities in the town of Soesterberg we’ve created the Control Organisation Research Environment (CORE) for simulating control rooms. We see lots of potential for the maritime sector. Moreover, market parties recognize the cost advantages of working in series. If a single operator can control five ships in convoy, then many more operations can be standardized.”

“In general, we envisage a more robust advisory role for shore-based systems, thus lightening the workload for crew and technical personnel”

Lower emissions

“Shipping companies can save fuel and decrease CO2 emissions by planning routes more accurately and by factoring in currents, the weather and sailing speed,” Huisman continues. “It goes without saying that safety is a concern for everyone involved. In fact, we must ensure that autonomous shipping is even safer than traditional navigation. To err is human, but if a system fails, we quickly lose our confidence in the technology.”

Multidisciplinary merger

In the future, automated road traffic and automated water traffic will merge. “We are experiencing a transition to many more collaborative, autonomous systems on land, at sea and in the air,” states Pieter Boersma. “It’s a transition that calls for multidisciplinary expertise. Different requirements apply to inland shipping operations than to windfarm inspections. And a hoisting operation places different demands on systems and manpower than container transhipment. It’s all customized. We invite maritime professionals, both young and old, to join us in conceptualizing the future. And of course we are also keen to get in touch with organizations that might wish to use the available technology.”


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