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Building an infrastructure for autonomous systems

The Naval Architect September 2020


APExS EN L 1Long before the disruption of Covid-19, 2020 was intended to be the year in which IMO would complete its scoping exercise to determine how safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) could be regulated. Originally agreed upon at MSC 100 in December 2018, the scoping exercise is intended as a root-and-branch review of all IMO instruments and to decide which of these would be affected by MASS, apropos of any regulatory amendments. 


MSC 100 was also significant in establishing the four different degrees of autonomy that would fall under consideration, ranging from decision support tools (Degree 1) to a fully self-determining ship (Degree 4). But for the wider industry there remains considerable uncertainty about autonomous ships. 


“When I meet people I very often have the feeling that we’re talking about different things,” laments Capt. Eero Lehtovaara, head of regulatory affairs for ABB Marine & Ports. 


In an attempt to establish some boundaries to the discussion, ABB has internally developed its Intelligent Ship Initiative, which is less focused on speculative thinking about autonomy than the practical aspects of onboard operations and the synergy between humans and technology. 


Lehtovaara says that one way of framing the discussion is through navigational functions. A bridge crew’s situational control depends upon detecting, recognising and registering (whether in the log book or mentally) changes and then analysing and acting upon it. Many of these tasks are already not only supported by navigational tools (ECDIS, radar, GPS, AIS, Gyro) but the use of such equipment is actually mandated under SOLAS. 


“I think one of the key elements is whether we would be confident in letting machines take more space. We have already given them a lot of room on the bridge and the engine room. We already have unattended machinery spaces and I don’t see why that couldn’t also apply to the bridge.” 


As a technology provider, ABB clearly has a keen eye on the evolution of those social attitudes and how that shapes the markets and demand for new innovations. “One of the discussions we have had both internally and externally, is how the ship systems and subsystems need to be as safe as conventional ships. But there are a large number of unanswered questions in several different areas and we need to pursue this step by step,” says Lehtovaara. 



Autonomous guidelines 


Another organisation putting the onus on how autonomy will affect onboard operations is ClassNK, which in January published an updated version of its guidelines for MASS. Anticipating that the design and development of MASS technologies will assume many different forms and concepts, the guidelines cover common basic requirements and procedures from the viewpoint of safety verification at each lifecycle stage. 


“Our guidelines can be applied to most technologies. Whether for concept ships with short navigation routes, whose main goals are unmanned navigation, or oceangoing ships whose main goals are high-level assistance to crews,” says Tomoaki Yamada, manager of ClassNK’s Research Institute. 


As ‘proof of concept’ Yamada explains how ClassNK granted an Approval in Principle (AiP) to NYK Line and Monohakobi Technology Institute (MTI) for their joint project to develop an autonomous ship framework. The Action Planning Execution System (APExS) is a tool for realising MASS that can support crew members’ situational awareness. 


In verifying APExS, the target task of the Automated Operating System (AOS) needed to be defined, along with clarifying the roles of humans and computers and the Operational Design Domain (ODD) of the AOS. In addition, there needed to be a clear fallback procedure should the AOS fail. 


ClassNK is now working on what Yamada describes as its next contribution to autonomous guidelines: the utilisation of simulation methods and the quantitative evaluation of the results of simulation scenarios. 


“When it comes to the simulation the type of situation is important. It is necessary to have scenarios including encounters with other ships, as well disturbance from the weather and sea conditions and so on,” says Yamada. 


In addition, ClassNK is developing methods for confirming the validity and integrity of Remote Operation Systems (ROS), which will clarify the safety requirements for communications stability. It is hoped these requirements can be established with the help of knowledge gained from demonstration projects.