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Investment pours into unmanned ships


A variety of autonomous ship technology development projects are taking off in Northern Europe, with millions of pounds and Euro being committed to the introduction of new pilot systems and test vessels

Across Europe, the dream of creating an unmanned ship that can operate autonomously at sea may be coming a few steps closer to reality, with various governments and institutions backing the development of new technologies in the field.

Finland, for example, is enthusiastically supporting the future testing of autonomous ships, with the country aiming to provide the world's first unmanned maritime products, services and ecosystem by 2025.

As a part of this ecosystem, the Ministry of Transport and Communications says it is committed to enabling the testing of autonomous vessels in Finland by adopting a flexible approach to their approval.

Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, will finance this autonomous marine ecosystem development, which will include firms like Rolls Royce, Wärtsilä, Cargotec, Ericsson, Meyer Turku, and Tieto.

“We are especially enthusiastic about colliding our world class ICT start-up scene with strong maritime players. New networks will boost exchanging ideas and create a pioneering community for intelligent shipping,” said programme manager Piia Moilanen from Tekes.

The initiative will try to create a common roadmap for autonomous marine operations by cultivating co-operation and coordinated development between industry, research institutes, class societies and authorities.

DIMECC Ltd will act as the ecosystem manager, responsible for coordinating these efforts. DIMECC includes a network of more than 2,000 R&D professionals and 400 organisations, including maritime, ICT and software companies.


Trondheimsfjord

Not to be outdone by their Finnish neighbours, the Norwegian Coastal Authority (NCA) has designated an extensive area of the Trondheimsfjord in Northern Norway as an official test bed for autonomous shipping.

Following on from the Norwegian gov­ernment’s new National Transport Plan, the fjord offshore Trondheim will host projects working on the development of technology that aims to make autonomous shipping a reality.

The area experiences light vessel traffic, making it a safe place to conduct autonomous vehicle trials, and is also home to a maritime technology cluster with several academic and research organisations.

The initiative was established by the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK), the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Trondheim Port Authority, Kongsberg and Maritime Robotics. Other stakeholders include the Ocean Space Centre, and NTNU’s Center for Autonomous Operations and Services (AMOS).

“As far as we know, there are no such test sites of this kind in the world so the Norwegian Coastal Authorities are taking the lead in a changing maritime world,” said Gard Ueland, president, Kongsberg Seatex.

“We are seeing how autonomy is coming into vehicles on land. I believe we will see some massive changes in the future leading to smart ships that will make maritime transport safer and more efficient. We will also see technology that has the potential to enable fully autonomous cargo vessels. Much of this will come from Trondheim, thanks to the unmatched maritime expertise here and our autonomous vehicles test bed.”

Kongsberg has already been working on autonomous technology trials in the Trondheimsfj ord, with its Trondheim-based subsidiary Kongsberg Seatex having tested various new systems in the area in June 2016, together with the NTNU and the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.

Furthermore, the AUTOSEA project, which is focusing on automated situational awareness, will also use Trondheimsfjord as a test site for sensor fusion systems which aim to reduce the risk of collisions between ships and vehicles when increasing levels of autonomy are introduced, leveraging sensor types not normally used for such purposes in the maritime sector such as cameras, infrared and LIDAR.


ENABLE

In Southern Norway, also getting involved in unmanned ship research is Egersund­based NAVTOR, which has been selected to represent the maritime industry in the ENABLE project, an EU initiative to validate the safety of autonomous vehicles in Europe.

The Norwegian firm has received fund­ing to investigate the concept of ‘shore-based bridges’ over the next three years as a stepping stone on the path to autonomous vessels as part of the project.
ENABLE was originally proposed by the car industry, before the EU widened its scope to take in the full spectrum of trans­port, including ships.

“It’s an honour to be selected as the sole representative for our industry,” said NAVTOR e-Navigation project manager, Bjørn Åge Hjøllo.

“The opportunity to work alongside established leaders in analogous transport sectors – learning from them, sharing knowledge and collaborating for new technical solutions – really is ‘once in a lifetime’.”

“The shared goal is important for Europe, while the expertise we accrue will obviously be of huge benefit to our customers – all of whom can take advantage of key elements of shore-based bridges.”

NAVTOR’s role in ENABLE, which runs through to October 2019, will focus on testing the validity of the software element of a remote bridge concept. This will be built upon continuous data sharing between vessels and land, with key navigation functions migrating from the crew to office-based teams.

Shore-based bridges will not be central to the day-to-day operation of autonomous vessels, NAVTOR says, but will be a vital part of their support infrastructure, allowing those on shore to take charge of individual ships when necessary.

“We believe autonomous vessels will be a reality within the next 10 to 15 years. Shore-based bridges will be a vital part of realising that vision,” adds Mr Hjøllo.

“However, before that point there is work to be done. We can use our expertise with software, monitoring, planning, and the secure transfer of data between vessels as a platform to build upon. Together with actors from sectors such as research institutes and the car industry, which has already made huge leaps forward in autonomy, we can accelerate the development of safe, reliable and innovative solutions for maritime.”
“This is a long-term project with huge potential. We’re delighted to be taking the maritime lead.”
NAVTOR launched the initiative with a pre-project meeting including representatives from 16 of Europe’s leading research and development institutions, held in its hometown Egersund. Other ENABLE participants include IBM, Philips Medical Systems, Renault, Tieto and Siemens.
Mayflower Autonomous  Ship
Plans are also underway in the UK to apply unmanned ship technologies in the construction of a multi-million pound robot boat to mark the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower out of Plymouth, with a Crowdfunding initiative being launched by the team behind the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) to support its development.

The unmanned ship will be a 21st Century version of the original Mayflower vessel and aims to be able to sail without crew from Plymouth, UK to Plymouth, USA in 2020 on the 400th anniversary of the first ship’s sailing.
The MAS is envisaged to be a trimaran, 32m long and 16m wide, made of carbon fibre. Design and testing of the boat will take about 18 months, with construction to take place in 2018. Trials will start in late 2018 or early 2019.

In order to get the design from blueprint to boatyard, the organisers say that they need to raise £300,000 for the design and development stage, which will include wave tank scale-model testing.

Crowdfunding contributors will be able to have personal messages inscribed on the new ship. For £20 you can put your name on the boat; for £50 you can put your family’s name on it and for £35 you can put two names and a significant date.

Larger donations will be rewarded with invitations to VIP events, invitations to the launch, and other offers.
“So far we have the plans, the passion, the potential and now all we need is to get it to production,” said Patrick Dowsett, who spent 30 years in the UK Royal Navy, including time as a commander in charge of HMS Northumberland.

“It is ground-breaking in so many ways and will put Plymouth on the global map for marine science excellence. We are offering everyone a chance to get involved in this incredible Devon project.”

“This first stage will nail down the planning, the testing, the project development and the modelling to enable us to start the build of the real thing in 2018.”

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship will sail without captain or crew across the Atlantic and be used to conduct scientific research around the world.

When launched, the MAS could be controlled by a computer, or by a captain sitting behind a virtual bridge onshore. It will sail out of Plymouth via remote control and then switch to autonomous control once out at sea.
The vessel will be solar powered, with the latest battery technology and renewable energy capture systems, which will help in travelling to inhospitable parts of the world to conduct scientific research and collect data. On board there will be unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as life rafts so that it can respond to distress calls from other mariners.

The MAS will be built in Plymouth and the South West of the UK, with the team behind the project, a collaboration between Plymouth submarine builder MSubs, Plymouth University and charitable marine research foundation Promare, now looking for suitable locations.

 

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