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Development of first ocean-going autonomous navigation system underway

The Naval Architect: June 2019Ocean Nav

One only needs to look at Rolls-Royce to see how quickly this technology has advanced. The company began investigating the potential of autonomous ships in 2013, remotely operated a retrofitted tugboat in 2017 and successfully demonstrated the world’s first fully autonomous ferry last year.


As they’re only too happy to tell you, many futurists believe maritime autonomy is a goldmine waiting to be plundered. The latest prospectors on this technological treasure hunt are Lloyd’s Register (LR), ST Engineering Electronics Ltd. (STEE), a Singapore-headquartered engineering group, and Mitsui & Co., who have joined forces on a new collaborative project.


During Singapore Maritime Week in April, the companies announced a memorandum of understanding outlining their intention to develop the industry’s first ocean-going autonomous navigation system.


The project aims to “develop and validate navigation intelligence for autonomous ocean-going vessel operations”. This two-year development programme is funded by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), which has invested S$7.2 million (US$5.3 million) into five autonomous shipping projects as part of its push to harness the use of remote technology.


Up to this point, most autonomous projects have focused on smaller vessels dedicated to coastal routes, making this partnership a significant step in expanding the application of autonomous systems across the industry.


“An ocean-going system will encounter increased environmental challenges compared to a coastal vessel, such as increased wave heights and operating in a variety of climates, from tropical waters to the North Atlantic,” says Andrew Watt, manager at LR’s Singapore-based SAMEA Naval Business Centre of Excellence. “This will really provide new challenges to situational awareness technology, including the decision-making solution and sensors.”


Watt adds: “An open-ocean system will also have to face a wider array of ‘use-cases’ for safe performance due to the range of scenarios encountered.”


Ocean-going ships are likely to encounter a range of unfamiliar territories during operations, from dead calm waters to congested ports. Coastal vessels, on the other hand, typically face significant volumes of traffic within well-known local territory; therefore, they are subject to fewer use-cases.


Eventually, the autonomous system will be tested on a retrofitted ocean-going car carrier, Themis, operated by the Japanese conglomerate, Mitsui. Test routes will include busy waterways such as the Suez Canal, Panama Canal as well as the Straits of Malacca. The Singapore-flagged car carrier – capable of ferrying up to 8,000 cars – was recently re-classed by LR, which will provide its regulation expertise and system approval for the application of autonomous technology.


Besides pushing the boundaries of the technology and verifying its wider navigational competence, the joint project seeks to upscale STEE’s technology for the commercial marine market. STEE has been highly involved in autonomous sector, having previously developed the technology for military purposes.


Although Watt admits predicting the timeline for the commercialisation of the technology is difficult, he anticipates that various forms of autonomous navigation systems on bridges, such as intelligent auto-pilot systems, may be fitted on numerous vessels as early as 2025.


“I believe the capability of these systems are already very close to being a commercial product,” says Watt. “However, various additional factors remain such as legislation, public acceptance and established operating models for ship operators.”


The process of composing new regulations to support the deployment of autonomous technology and demonstrating the system’s safety remain the biggest hurdles in bringing autonomous ships to full fruition, particularly for ocean-going vessels.


“This project will aim to gather more experience of these systems in operation, now in an open ocean environment, to provide key learnings on safety of these systems and what the requirements of a regulatory framework could look like,” says Watt.