Technology providers fight for autonomy firsts

Finferries' 'Falco' has become the first fully autonomous ferry, using ship intelligence systems from Rolls-Royce
Finferries' 'Falco' has become the first fully autonomous ferry, using ship intelligence systems from Rolls-Royce
Wartsila claimed the first automated port-to-port operation of a ferry on Norled's 'Folgefonn'
Wartsila claimed the first automated port-to-port operation of a ferry on Norled's 'Folgefonn'
The Helsinki harbour tourist ferry 'Suomenlinna II' was guided remotely using ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control
The Helsinki harbour tourist ferry 'Suomenlinna II' was guided remotely using ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control

The race towards fully autonomous vessel operations stepped up a gear in late 2018, with three ferries in Finland and Norway – and three technology providers – vying for notable firsts.

First off the mark was Wärtsilä, which on 28 November revealed to press at its Portsmouth campus that is had demonstrated ‘full dock-to-dock capability’ on the ferry Folgefonn. In the presence of the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA), autonomous operations were used uninterrupted for the entire route, visiting all three ports serviced by the ship.

“This represents a huge step forward in validating automated shipping solutions, and an important progression within our Smart Marine programme,” said Joonas Makkonen, vice president, voyage solutions, Wärtsilä.

Once the operator selected the next destination berth, the operation was started by simply selecting “Sail”, which authorised the autonomous controller to take control of the vessel. The ferry was able to leave the dock, manoeuvre out of the harbour, sail to the next port of call, manoeuvre through the harbour entrance, and dock alongside the terminal – all without human intervention. Wärtsilä described the operation as the first ever attempt at fully automated dock-to-dock operation, in complete hands-off mode, for a vessel of this size.

Navigation was controlled by a series of tracks and waypoints, which guide the ship to the next destination. The autonomous controller, based on Wärtsilä’s existing Dynamic Positioning system, controls the vessel’s speed, position on the pre-defined track, and heading. GNSS is used as the primary sensor, while a Wärtsilä Guidance Marine CyScan AS is being tested as a secondary position sensor for the approach to the berth.

“We were on site for three days as witnesses to these tests the first full scale demonstration towards an autonomous operation of a vessel that we have seen,” says Nils Haktor Bua, project manager, NMA. “There is no doubt that such technology can eventually increase the safety and overall efficiency of the docking and undocking operations for ships. Of course, further development work is still ongoing, but I am impressed by how stable the system already is at this stage,”

The 85m loa Folgefonn is owned by Norwegian ferry operator Norled. It was used also for the initial testing of Wärtsilä’s autodocking solution, which took place in early 2018. The vessel is equipped with hybrid propulsion with wireless shore connection capable of fully electric operation, and features a wireless inductive battery charging solution and energy storage systems.

“A fully autonomous dock-to-dock solution will provide us with considerable value-adding benefits in terms of better efficiency, greater safety, lower fuel consumption and therefore reduced exhaust emissions,” says Sigbjørn Myrvang, technical manager at Norled. “We see the Wärtsilä solution as being a key support to the crew, enabling them to operate the vessel as effectively as possible.”

FALCO FLIES

Just a few days later, Rolls-Royce and Finnish state-owned ferry operator Finferries demonstrated what they described as the world’s first fully autonomous ferry in Turku. The car ferry Falco used a combination of Rolls-Royce Ship Intelligence technologies to navigate autonomously during its voyage between Parainen and Nauvo. The return journey was conducted under remote control.

The 53.8m loa double-ended car ferry detected objects utilising sensor fusion and artificial intelligence and conducted collision avoidance- a factor that was not involved in the Wärtsilä test. It also demonstrated automatic berthing with a recently developed autonomous navigation system, all without any human intervention from the crew.

The Falco is equipped with a range of advanced sensors which allows it to build a detailed picture of its surroundings, in real time and with a level of accuracy beyond that of the human eye. The situational awareness picture is created by fusing sensor data which is relayed to Finferries’ remote operating centre, 59km away in Turku city centre, where a captain monitors the vessel and can take control if necessary.

Rolls-Royce has so far clocked close to 400 hours of sea trials on the ship’s autonomous systems. The Rolls-Royce Autodocking system is among the technologies that have been tested, enabling the vessel to automatically alter course and speed when approaching the quay and carry out automatic docking without human intervention. During the sea trials, the collision avoidance solution has also been tested in various conditions for several hours of operation.

Earlier this year Rolls-Royce and Finferries began collaborating on a new research project called SVAN (Safer Vessel with Autonomous Navigation), to continue implementing the findings from the earlier Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) research project, funded by Business Finland.

Mikael Makinen, president, Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine, says: “The SVAN project has been a successful collaboration between Rolls-Royce and Finferries and an ideal opportunity to showcase to the world how Ship Intelligence technology can bring great benefits in the safe and efficient operation of ships. This demonstration proves that the autonomous ship is not just a concept, but something that will transform shipping as we know it.”

Mats Rosin, Finferries’ CEO, adds: “As a modern ship-owner our main goal in this cooperation has been on increasing safety in marine traffic as this is beneficial for both the environment and our passengers. But we are also equally excited about how this demonstration opens the door to the new possibilities of autonomous shipping and safety.”

REMOTE POSSIBILITIES

Elsewhere in Finland a week earlier, ABB had been advancing its own autonomy ambitions with the first remote control trial operation on a working passenger ferry. Ice-class passenger ferry Suomenlinna II was remotely piloted through test area near Helsinki harbour.

Suomenlinna II was retrofitted with ABB’s new dynamic positioning system, ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control, and steered from a control centre in Helsinki. Speaking after the voyage, Captain Lasse Heinonen said: “The progress we have made with the remote trial has been remarkable. I believe we are on the right track to exploring further possibilities of this technology as we move forward.”

Suomenlinna II normally voyages from Helsinki to Suomenlinna fortress, the UNESCO World Heritage site on a nearby island. For the remote piloting trial, the ferry departed from Helsinki’s market square, Kauppatori, and Captain Heinonen wirelessly operated Suomenlinna II with ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control through a pre-selected area of Helsinki harbor.

The trial took place during the vessel’s off hours, away from shore with no passengers aboard, in an area free of other vessels. While it is now equipped with the new dynamic positioning system, the vessel will continue to operate via a set of conventional onboard controls, with the remote mode deployed during the trial only. Research and development will continue with the ferry and her crew.

Suomenlinna II, originally built in 2004, is fitted with ABB’s icebreaking Azipod electric propulsion system. Additionally, the ferry was retrofitted with ABB Ability Marine Pilot Vision situational awareness solution in 2017.

These three very different trials each represent something different for the developing field of remote and autonomous vessel operations. While the competing technology companies will see advantage in jostling to be first, the overall trend is clear – autonomous and remote operation will soon be a very widespread capability for small passenger vessels. In the context of the potential autonomy has to revolutionise shipping operations, this marks an important early step.

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