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Estonian maritime duo team up to optimise ferry loading

The Naval Architect: September 2019Estonian

Two years ago, Tallink Grupp activated its ‘Smart Port’ solution at the Port of Tallinn in efforts to automate and speed up the process of loading and unloading vehicles onto ferries. Now, the Baltic Sea shipping company has set out to push such smart solutions even further.


Early this year, it announced a collaborative project with TalTech’s Estonian Maritime Academy to develop a ‘Smart Car Deck’. The goal of the two-year €100,000 (US$110,000) project is to reduce waiting times for passengers with vehicles embarking and disembarking ships, improve operations of ships’ car decks and provide more support for cargo officers.


Like many ferry lines across Europe, Tallink has seen an increasing number of passengers year-on-year. The company, which operates between Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Latvia, set a new record in July for transporting the highest number of passengers – 1,238,871 – in one month throughout its history.


And just as passenger numbers have grown, so too has the size of the ferries. The market growth has persuaded ferry operators to invest in bigger passenger and ro-pax vessels, yet, ports have remained virtually the same size due to physical space limitations. This imbalance has exacerbated the potential for traffic jams, long waiting times and unpleasant queues during boarding.


With its Smart Car Deck and Smart Port solutions, Tallink and TalTech hope to overcome these challenges by making the everyday routine work required when loading ferries more automated.


Machine-based boarding
Through scientific collaboration, the partners – who have worked together previously – plan on using the latest sensor technology and machine learning to develop the Smart Car Deck. They will look at combining well-known sensors and systems, such as cargo and vehicle registration, the ship’s loading and stability software, and the ship’s hydrodynamic sensors, with new custom-made ones.


Using these technologies, the ship will effectively be able to both identify the vehicles being loaded and establish the best place for them on the ship’s deck. This means that the ship’s loading plan will no longer need to be generated by a cargo officer, but instead will be produced automatically by machine learning software. The cargo officer will only have to approve the plan and can spend additional time on more specialised tasks.


“The introduction of this kind of new technology will enable us to automatically create the most efficient digital loading plans, all aimed at the best positioning of all the vehicles on the car deck,” says Captain Tarvi-Carlos Tuulik, head of ship management at Tallink. This way “they help achieve the best stability, cargo space utilisation and fuel efficiency for the trip.”


Obtaining information about the passenger vehicles being loaded and determining how to arrange the best loading conditions are among the greatest difficulties in relation to cargo stowage on ro-ro vessels, according to IMO. The Smart Car Deck, however, would help eliminate these obstacles, which often slow down the embarking process.


Once the vehicles have been identified and directed onboard, they will be guided to the optimum parking slot by digital screens. The location of all vehicles or cargo units will be automatically detected when parked and secured. In addition to automating vehicle traffic flow and improving the use of deck space, passengers’ access to their vehicles will be enhanced as well.


Tallink and TalTech are currently focused on developing the initial solutions for Tallink’s Tallinn-Helsinki route and will eventually test the Smart Car Deck on the company’s shuttle vessel, Megastar. If it proves successful, the system has the potential to work on all kinds of ro-ro ships visiting ports equipped with Smart Port solutions, says Tuulik.