Greg Atkinson: Innovation and autonomy

04 Aug 2014
Greg Atkinson: There’s been no room for fuzzy thinking, we take everything stepwise, proving at each stage that it will work

Greg Atkinson: There’s been no room for fuzzy thinking, we take everything stepwise, proving at each stage that it will work

The potential presented by driverless vehicles, whether cars or aerial drones, is beginning to capture both headlines and imagination so Greg Atkinson of Eco Marine Power tells Stevie Knight that he knew the topic of unmanned ships would not be far away.

“There’s a lot of smaller vessels out there which really don’t need to have people on them,” says Mr Atkinson: “So, I thought why don’t we take what we already have in the lab and roll it out?”

Mr Atkinson realised that EMP had already developed a lot of the backbone technology behind autonomous vessels: powering a ship from renewable sources ‘on the hoof’ and bringing together solar, wind and batteries with a refined control system.

But to get to the point where the Aquarius unmanned surface vessel (USV) prototype is readying itself for tests, you have to go back a little to the history of the man himself.

Greg Atkinson has stepped away from many easier paths to take on the unconventional. An Australian living in Japan, he is also an ex-multinational telecommunications specialist involved in rolling out 3G networks. So, what is he doing coming up with novel, environmentally sound solutions for ships?

Although he describes it as “a series of lucky coincidences” in talking it over it becomes clear that his own drive and insight has more to do with it than luck: before getting drawn into the telecommunications sector he spent a decade working as an electronics engineer for the Royal Australian Navy.

It was while taking a break in Japan in 2008 that he started to look at the challenges of bringing green technology onboard ships, “originally just to satisfy my own curiosity”. He says: “I got together with a few other people that were interested and before I knew it the study project moved into a test lab.”

He adds: “Despite this, I wasn’t so much interested in the hardware in the beginning, my attention was primarily on how to integrate these systems into a ship.” This is where Mr Atkinson’s own electronics background provided a useful stepping stone as he understood the sophisticated software architecture needed to tie together diverse renewable power sources with any degree of reliability – and the reality of crewing a vessel.

“You can’t just create a ‘standalone system’. You have to make these solutions easy to handle without creating additional workload for the crew who really don’t need any more screens for them to look at.”

First, a “very interesting Hazard Robot” got automation and data specialist KEI Systems involved, and others, such as photovoltaic innovator Solbian followed, no doubt both through Mr Atkinson’s enthusiasm and Japan’s openness to novel concepts – “ideas which would probably get you weird looks if you tried them out anywhere else” he admits. 

And along the way, Mr Atkinson’s interest broadened. Wind, an overlooked propulsion source, had potential especially with the development of rigid sail technology. However, although there were a few on the market there weren’t any that could be satisfactorily embedded with sensors. “So, we had to go about creating that too.” Again, his curiosity and a certain serendipity played its part when a small metal manufacturing outfit turned up at a presentation: as it turned out, this company was the Teramoto Iron Works, a very old, distinguished and innovative Japanese company that had been involved with trials of rigid sails in Japan back in the 1980s. As a result the company was extremely interested in taking it further; “Suddenly we had ourselves a production workshop,” says Mr Atkinson.

These collaborations helped Eco Marine Power develop from the EnergySail to a number of designs like the Medaka Urban Commuter Ferry, a solar and hybrid battery answer to city pollution. There’s also the Aquarius MRE System, an integrated system which ties together solar panels, marine computers, rigid sails and battery banks, and this has even spawned the Aquarius Eco Ship: a large complete bulk carrier design that potentially allows fuel savings of up to 40%.

However, he is clear that ‘environmentally sound’ also has to mean ‘sound engineering’. “When people come to visit the Aquarius Innovation Lab, they will see that there’s been no room for fuzzy thinking, we take everything stepwise, proving at each stage that it will work.”

So, how is the sector responding to the designs? “We are getting direct enquiries now about when our solar and wind solutions will be ready,” he says. And despite the original idea that the Aquarius MRE System would be best suited for long range tankers and bulkers, he says he’s found the cruise and passenger ferry sector is leading the way as they have pressure from both customers and port stops to be seen as clean and green. As a result the first of these systems is soon to be trialled on a large car and passenger ferry; initially the solar panels, batteries and Aquarius Management and Automation System (MAS) will be installed, then the whole will be integrated with the EnergySail technology.

This will provide another breakthrough for the company, he explains: “Once we go onto sea trials, it will be harder for people to say that we ‘are just playing in the sandpit’.”

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