As the Baltic is the location of some of the busiest ports in northern Europe, safe and efficient transit and delivery of cargo is critical to commercial success. One of the biggest players in the region is Finnish ESL Shipping Oy, which operates a fleet of more than a dozen dry bulk and general cargo vessels and prides itself on ‘just in time’ delivery of goods.
In August and September of this year, ESL took delivery of the sister ships Haaga and Viikki. Billed as the world’s most eco-friendly bulk carriers, both the 160m, 25,600dwt Handysize vessels are fuelled by LNG, with the additional capability of ultimately being powered by carbon-free biogas when this is readily available. The two ships, which have now both traversed the Northern Sea Route to arrive at their base of operations in the Baltic, form part of the Bothnia Bulk project, an EU part-funded venture which aims to modernise the traffic between Luleå, Oxelösund and Raahe.
In 2017, while the two ships were already under construction at Jinling Shipyard in Nanjing, China, it was announced that ESL and marine cargo handling specialists MacGregor, a subsidiary of Cargotec, were undertaking a joint project that would see Haaga and Viikki become the first bulk carriers to be equipped with autonomous self-discharging cranes. Although the vessels haven’t entered service with this function operative it is hoped to make it active following further testing in the latter part of this year.
Using a combination of advanced sensor technology, cameras and laser scanners, the cranes’ software is able to analyse the topography of each cargo hold and determine the optimal lifting points. Meanwhile, an ‘intelligent’ self-learning algorithm will automatically adjust to ensure the bucket is not overloaded and to compensate for heeling so that the vessel is unloaded evenly. The algorithm can also calculate which shoreside hopper to discharge the cargo onto, based on that hopper’s capacity.
Mattias Sundström, Director of Sales and Handling for MacGregor’s Cargo Handling Division, tells The Naval Architect that when ESL (via Jinling) contracted MacGregor to provide the two ships’ cranes, autonomous mode wasn’t part of the plan, although MacGregor had been developing the system independently for several years. But the two companies have a long association, including several ESL vessels equipped with similar cranes
“Even though Viikki is a bulker we handle it like a general cargo ship because the hatch covers are foldable. The autonomous crane is part of our K-crane series,” he explains.
Haaga and Viikki are each equipped with three electro-hydraulic cranes, with a safe working load (SWL) of 30tonnes and a reach of 30m. One of the major advantages of bringing autonomy to crane operation is the system can co-ordinate the movement of the cranes more efficiently than would be possible for a human carrying out the same task, avoiding safety issues such as collisions between cranes or pendulation of the grabs while moving cargo.
“An experienced crane operator might be able to unload quicker [than a computer] if there’s just one crane, but when there’s three they need to constantly consider where the other cranes are. Normally we have what we call an anticollision system, meaning the cranes reduce speed, but haven’t previously had the capability to know exactly where they are,” explains Sundström.
As well as avoiding the risk of an accident, MacGregor also believes that the autonomous system will extend the service life of the cranes, since it will always calculate the most efficient way of getting to the discharge point. “It’s like a car, you don’t push the full gas all the time. Similarly, an experienced crane driver will know exactly how to do this so that it’s full power then reduce it by half, meaning that all the hydraulic and electric motors have soft controls.”
Naturally, the technology is a little bit more expensive than conventional lifting equipment, but the two ships will be operating predominantly on short routes with lengthy spells at harbour, and the cranes have been designed to be capable of almost 24/7 operation, which mitigates for the additional investment. The agreement between ESL and MacGregor also dictated that the cranes should be remotely operable from the bridge or even, theoretically, shoreside.
The communication module, described as the backbone of the system, essentially mimics a crane driver’s desk and can be located wherever the operator has a clear view of the crane position and topographic cargo map. Cameras located on the crane jib top and the top of the crane housing make it possible to look down directly into cargo hold and surroundings. To ensure there are no human injuries while discharging, and in accordance with existing requirements, there are also safety systems to ensure people don’t encroach the unloading zone.
Beyond the partnership with ESL, Sundström says that several other companies have expressed some interest, although the overall weakness of the dry bulk sector at present means there have been few active enquiries. It’s more likely that certain elements of the technology, such as the grab’s learning capability, will be adapted for use with other systems, although the expense involved involved suggests it will be deployed on newbuildings rather than retrofits.
There may also be applications outside of dry cargo. “We foresee this might be the link to fully automated container terminals. There’s a lot less space to work in than with a big grabber unloading onto a big pile or hopper, but it is possible. We’ve had some enquiries from container ship owners as well, both at land and on sea, as a means of controlling where they place the different boxes and their different weights. At present they’re still in the Stone Age, working with big Excel files and trying to do it all themselves. So when they see something like this they go a bit crazy.”
Another opportunity could be breakbulk. At SMM in September, MacGregor launched its Breakbulk Optimiser, an automated cloud-based application for the calculation and stowage of breakbulk and general cargo, making it possible to plan more effectively for last-minute changes in the itinerary and improve utilisation. The software can even be applied across multiple vessels.
MacGregor, like many other companies, has a vision in the future of a fully automated port where a ship might arrive at its destination in the middle of the night and start discharging immediately, without any need for stevedores or human intervention. Increasingly the obstacles are less those of technological readiness than the absence of a supporting regulatory framework to make it permissible.
Indeed, the cranes themselves are still awaiting formal classification in order to be able to operate autonomously. Sundström explains: “I know that DNV GL [which classed the two ships] are interested in discussing it, but so far nothing has taken place, and that was at the request of the shipowner.
“From our perspective it would be useful if the classification societies provided more advice on what we can and can’t do. That’s a little bit outside our box, because usually the class rules are the basis of everything we do and I know they’re eager to learn and be involved. But we’re confident that we’ve designed this system as we believe it should be.”