17 Dec 2020

Autonomous sailing ≠ unmanned ships

In focus: ✔ Research & Development ✔ Fast Crew Suppliers (FCS) ✔ Digitalisation ✔ Damen Triton ✔ SeaZip Offshore Service ✔ Sea Machines

Ben Littler

For many people, autonomous sailing equates to unmanned ships cruising the world's seas. This may one day become reality, but for the time being the front runners are busy taking other steps in which the captain becomes supervisor.

The development of autonomous ships has been high on the agenda of the Research & Development department of Damen Shipyards Group for years. “In fact, last year we performed a successful test in which one of our Fast Crew Suppliers (FCS) already sailed autonomously at sea,” explains Michiel Louwerse, R&D program manager.

Autonomous sailing: heading to more sustainability

Damen conducted this test in the development of an autonomous vessel together with, among others, the shipping company SeaZip Offshore Service. “A good test to see what is possible,” says operations manager Harm Mulder.

“For us, it's not so much about unmanned navigation, but about relieving our crews. For example, in addition to navigation, a captain has many tasks, such as keeping the logbooks and processing weather forecasts in the daily planning.

This combination of responsibilities does not make digital support an unnecessary luxury. You reduce the number of errors on board. In addition, autonomous sailing provides savings in fuel consumption and is therefore also more sustainable."


Integrating sensors for collision avoidance

Another partner that Damen works with in the field of autonomous sailing is Boston-based Sea Machines. “90 percent of maritime accidents have a human cause,” said EMEA business development manager Frank Relou.

“By integrating sensors such as radar, cameras and AIS, we can already offer systems that monitor situational awareness continuously. In the context of obstacle and collision avoidance, our system can not only identify and track objects, but also intervenes independently to change course and speed in order to avoid a collision; subject to the COLREGs. This creates an extra layer of safety that is always ready and never suffers from fatigue or boredom."

The formula of autonomous ships: taking away dangerous, dull or dirty work

There are certainly applications where digitalisation ultimately leads to a reduction in crew. Harm Mulder: “I am thinking of survey vessels or the guard vessels that monitor wind farms.”

According to Frank Relou, the formula for this is: "dangerous, dull or dirty". “If that is the case, there is a lot to be gained in various areas by autonomously operating vessels. The economic benefits of a smaller crew are obvious, but by enabling on shore supervision, you can also reduce the amount of training required for those on board.”

SmartShip programme

“We are a system integrator par excellence,” says Michiel Louwerse of Damen. “All these developments come together in our SmartShip programme. Via our connected vessel platform Triton we can look back and analyse big data from our ships.

With our simulation platform we look ahead and we can predict what will happen. The resulting insights into efficiency and safety can be provided as advice to the bridge, but are increasingly implemented directly by the automation on board. A form of artificial intelligence, as it were.”

Autonomous sailing and the role of the captain

Sometimes autonomous vessel projects look like hi-tech toys to see who can sail first without a crew. Michiel Louwerse: “That is by no means our goal. Everything is based on the use of technology to overcome limitations in the ship's current operation.

Imagine the situation of a captain of a fast crew supplier who has to transfer people to a wind turbine at night with high waves and a lot of wind. That requires utmost concentration. With autonomous technology we can have the navigation tasks carried out by a digital co-pilot.

The captain becomes a supervisor and can fully focus on the safety and deployment of people and ship. Autonomous sailing does not necessarily equate to unmanned vessels. What matters is that digital technology supports professionals and ensures that our ships take as much work as possible off their hands. More efficient and safer. That will be the future.”

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UnPaC: sailing drone

New on the drawing boards at Damen is the Unmanned Patrol Craft (UnPaC); the future in security from the water.

The UnPaC is an autonomous vessel of a few metres in length that, in the context of timely observation, is used for surveillance and protection from the water; for example at harbour entrances, wind farms or around superyachts.

The sailing drone can be controlled remotely, but can also operate completely autonomously via GPS. It is equipped with radar, cameras and infrared technology to identify objects. You can communicate with any intruders via a sound box.

“It can be used continuously for one to two days in a row,” explains Marcel Karsijns, product director Civil & Modular Constructions at Damen Shipyards Group. “The boat is made of HDPE (High-Density Poly Ethylene). This makes it seawater resistant, virtually maintenance-free and also easy to repair."