In a show of prototypes, a pod of unmanned sailboats from
around the world competes to cross "The Atlantic" test tank in
Horten, Norway. Cross the real ocean, and the Sail Bots race
similarly challenges scholarly robotic-vessel designers to North
America for a bit of station-keeping, collision-avoidance and
"cargo moves". For all, the future seems bright - the
first commercial runs of unmanned vessels are underway or
scheduled worldwide. These earliest movers have the support of
governments, Google and grateful clients.
Further ahead than most is Trondheim-based Maritime Robotics,
builder of unmanned surface vessels, or USVs. Their designs
already represent business streams: the 6 feet by 3 ft. catamaran
Otter is tipped to be "mass produced" for fish-farm operations;
the Mariner is available for offshore survey and supply. Both
vessels are in-field, data-acquisition "platforms" that save
money by replacing vastly more expensive options like crews and
six-figure day rates. A Maritime Robotics deal with Seabed
Geosolutions introduced the first USV for infield seismic
surveys, where typically gigantic vessels might represent too
much "risk". Other, science-based clients have needed
water-analysis, wind, inspection or survey work.
The larger Mariner - an enclosed RIB-like vessel built locally -
can acquire data for military, science or commercial purposes and
is already on two-year seismic survey contract for Seabed
Geosolutions. The Mariner started with a pilot project in 2011
that produced a commercial hit for the Mariner two years into
development and before trials were over. "In the beginning, it
was doing special cargo transport between offshore supply
vessels," said Erik Hovstein, COO, on the phone from Trondheim.
"Certain smaller cargo transfers couldn't be done at night,
normally, due to (safety concerns). That was the start for us in
Hovstein quickly found applications for their USVs in other
markets, especially as unmanned sensor carriers. "The vessel
itself isn't of tremendous value. It offers value when you give
it sensors that give back temperatures at sea or seabed mapping
or accurate communications. It's the data. The hardest part was
making it robust and reliable (via testing and development). Now
we see (the Mariner is) operational all the time with no
downtime." Paid 24/7 work has put Maritime Robotics on the cusp
of greater success in other markets.
In June 2017, after the 98th meeting of the UN Maritime
Organization's Maritime Safety Committee (MC 98), it was learned
that regulatory support for autonomous shipping had been sought
in a joint proposal from Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, The
Netherlands, South Korea, the U.K. and the United States. For its
part, the Norwegian Maritime Authority, or NMA, said it was
trying to preserve Norwegian innovation.
As was done for lead-free anti-fouling, a local innovation, the
NMA-sponsored drive at the IMO aims to cement a coming role for -
and the regulatory needs of - autonomous shipping. "This
(initiative) shows that Norway is at the forefront with regard to
facilitating new technology," an NMA communique says, adding,
"The proposal (at the IMO) to put autonomous ships on the agenda
faced no opposition, which came as a surprise to many" who had
expected countries that supply large numbers of mariners to balk.
Maritime Robotics' early success predates these latest political
strivings, but the company helped maritime agencies in Norway
declare in late-2016 the entire 126-km-long waterway,
Trondheimsfjord, a national autonomous-shipping test bed for the
researchers of NTNU, Sintef Ocean or the Norwegian Forum for
Autonomous Shipping, or NFAS. Oslo has allotted generous funding
for research on unmanned vessels, and shipping interests in
maritime stronghold Alesund disclosed plans to "wire-up" their
own Storfjorden for autonomous vessel testing, starting with
oceanographical data extracted from the fjord by sensors set up
to model bridges and test ferry designs. It's their "virtual
It isn't just a Norwegian thing. In May 2017, crane specialist
MacGregor (part of the Helsinki-listed Cargotec that earned $4
billion in 2016) joined a smallish but elite unmanned Baltic Sea
test grouping called One Sea Alliance, where companies aim to
produce "the first fully remote-controlled vessels … in three
One Sea is funded by the Finish Funding Agency for Innovation.
"The benefits of co-creation are obvious - software experts,
together with systems and equipment experts, can improve
efficiency and safety throughout the whole value chain," a
MacGregor R&D exec is quoted as saying. The crane maker hopes
to add a "scout" function to do predictive maintenance on the
cranes of unmanned vessels. Wärtsilä and NFAS are along in One
In September 2017, Wärtsilä remotely controlled from its San
Diego, California, office an offshore vessel off of Scotland. The
Gulfmark Offshore OSV was maneuvered for four hours by dynamic
positioning, or DP, and a joystick 8,000 km away. The 80-meter
Highland Chieftain had been fitted with a Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum
package for navigation, automation, dynamic positioning and
propulsion. Software was added to the DP system to route data
over the vessel's satellite link to staff onshore. "The onboard
preparation for the remote testing was limited to one service
engineer attending one afternoon," a company source writes in an
email. "A software update and establishing connection to the
ships (satcoms) was needed to enable the tests." The Gulfmark
test bolsters Wärtsilä's "virtual" services in the market while
ironing out controls needed during auto-docking procedures.
In May 2017, after the IMO proposal, Norwegian fertilizer firm,
Yara, and the Kongsberg group announced they would build the
world's first fully electric and autonomous container ship.
Kongsberg will deliver controls for the electric drive, battery
and propulsion systems while also fitting sensors and integrating
the Birkeland's electronics for remote operations that were due
to start in 2020 (delivery in 2018, sea trials in 2019). A yard
choice has been delayed pending more model trials. The 120 TEU,
open-top container ship will begin life assisted by humans in a
containerized bridge that'll be lifted off when the vessel goes
solo. The 3,200 dwt concept targets 10 knots though only expected
to travel 6 knots moving between southern Norwegian town,
Porsgrunn (fertilizer plant), and Larvik, a RoRo port. The
electric propulsion is two azimuth pods and two tunnel thrusters
fed from a 9 MWh battery back. Automatic loading and unloading
will happen by electric crane once an automatic mooring system
berths the ship.
Keys to autonomy for the Birkeland will be its proximity sensors
of Radar, Lidar, AIS and an array of camera types (plus the
all-important VPN connection by Inmarsat).
The Birkeland's Internet hookup will connect three onshore
centers handling emergencies, condition and operational
monitoring, decision support and vessel surveillance. All are
needed, as the ship will sail a regular 12-mile journey through a
popular waterway. "Technologically, we're very comfortable with
this project," CEO of the Kongsberg Group tells Norwegian E24.
"The biggest challenge is of course the rulebook. I think we'll
put together a good (regulatory) solution here in Norway … but
the big challenge becomes changing international regulations."
Rolls-Royce Marine is also pursuing autonomous strategies,
starting with remote monitoring sites for fleet and onboard
systems in Aalesund and at Longva, a company assembly facility
just across the fjord. A partnership with Google was announced as
we were dropping in for a look-see.
"Since Birkeland and Ampere (an all-electric ferry), ship owners
have been more willing to accept autonomous solutions," says
Rolls-Royce Marine's VP of autonomous and integrated systems,
Geir Olav Otterlei. Rolls-Royce is looking to automate (for data
analysis) "one to two vessels" for a "Phase 1", which is "getting
(enabling system ACON) onboard". "Phase 3" is a vessel becoming
autonomous. "We believe (unmanned vessels) will be rolled out in
a phased way," says Otterlei. Rolls-Royce has captured data from
22 vessels, a nod to their possible future "autonomous" use, and
is building a data analytics center. We visit the Logva site.
"He's logged on to the vessel," Otterlei says. Screens show a
fishing vessel, its temperature sensors blinking. "We'll
troubleshoot a little bit on the vessel."
The deal with Google lets Rolls-Royce use the Cloud Machine
Learning Engine "to further train the company's (AI-based) object
classification system for detecting, identifying and tracking"
objects a vessel might encounter at sea. Google algorithms
analyze faster "and better" than humans, and Rolls-Royce aims to
use Cloud software to build machine-learning models that
"interpret" terabytes of marine sensor data and link ship systems
-including every vessel's Automatic Identification System for
better area awareness.
Although he didn't name the vessel, Otterlei seemed to think the
only truly autonomous vessel currently earning commercially was a
tug. We didn't ask if he meant the Robert Allan RAmora, a
Canadian design that uses controls derived from ROVs, AUVs and
aerial drones and can be operated by a tug master in a nearby
vessel with "a level of control no different from being onboard".
It's main aim is tandem-tug ship handling, but it looks
While many are in the race, it seems Maritime Robotics may be the
only group making money on a working pair of autonomous vessels.
"We may be different than other companies because we actually do
unmanned shipping with vessels already out there earning while
others may still be doing the R&D," Mr. Hovstein says. "We
have this platform, and it works 24/7 for 40 to 50 days."
It isn't just the smaller autonomous platforms with
"competition". The Birkeland's competitor launches in 2019 as
Nippon Yusen Kaisha's unmanned box ship, according to a Bloomberg
report. Yet, Maritime Robotics also has an answer for larger
vessels - a Robotics USV Conversion System. In May 2017, the
Fugro Alumaster was converted and piloted remotely from shore in