Automating dock-to-dock voyages: a case study with ASC and Wärtsilä

American Steamship Company (ASC) has been performing automated docking and dock-to-dock sailing over the last 18 months with Wärtsilä’s SmartMove autonomous suite of solutions. Digital Ship spoke with ASC and Wärtsilä to find out how the technology is making navigation safer.

In March 2020, American Steamship Company (ASC), a subsidiary of Rand-ASC Holdings, was the first company to install Wärtsilä’s specially customised SmartMove navigational suite onboard its 24,300 GT self unloading bulk freighter, the American Courage. The vessel operates in the narrow and heavily congested Cuyahoga River in Ohio, US, a challenging shipping route for any vessel.

Prior to the collaboration with Wärtsilä, the 1979-built American Courage featured a satellite-based navigation system. However, the 3.5 mile stretch of the Cuyahoga River that the vessel frequently navigated required it to sail under 11 bridges, which often resulted in loss of satellite signal. Each time the American Courage lost signal, the entire navigation system would switch off for up to nine seconds at a time.

After experiencing these issues, ASC needed to find a terrestrial based system that did not rely on satellites. After speaking with three different marine solution provides, the shipping company realised the technology they were after was unavailable. Wärtsilä came up with the idea to customise a solution for ASC based on the suites they already had available in their Wärtsilä.

Voyage portfolio. The product was launched and first piloted onboard the American Courage under the name Wärtsilä SmartMove Suite.

Speaking to Digital Ship about the partnership, CEO of Rand ASC Holdings David Foster said, “Wärtsilä was the only one that said they could get the type of system we needed up and running for us in the time we specified. They took what was previously different suites of equipment, including navigation and electronics and compiled them in a way that works very well for our intended purpose.”


Smart navigation

Wärtsilä’s SmartMove Suite features advanced sensors and highly accurate ship control systems, providing the operator with a complete picture and control of the vessel’s movement. SmartMove enables companies to automate repetitive tasks such as docking, free-ing up the navigation officer to focus on other parts of the vessel’s operation.

Wärtsilä Voyage provides a standard hardware setup with redundant controllers and displays, along with a sensor suite (comprising gyro, MRU, wind, and GNSS sensors). This is connected to a single digital platform which houses five soft-ware products including: SmartDock, SmartTransit, SmartEntry, SmartPredict, and SmartDrive. The core blocks of software (including controllers, sensor processing, Thruster Allocation Logic and track follow) are sourced from Wärtsilä Voyage’s Dynamic Positioning portfolio.

The aim of SmartMove is not to replace people but to provide advanced decision support and enhance the capabilities of the crew onboard. It is a semi-autonomous system that enables both automatic and manual control, allowing the operator to switch between modes. The system is fully retrofittable on any ship type.

ASC’s American Courage has now been operating successfully on the Cuyahoga River with the technology for more than 14 months, helping the officer and those on watch to navigate the vessel as safely as possible.

“People asked us in the beginning, why the Cuyahoga River and our response was, well, if we can work in the Cuyahoga can work anywhere,” Foster explained. “I think what this highlights to the industry is that safety can be improved, even in the most challenging waters. If a vessel can consistently operate in the same manner without hitting a dock or something else, then it's got to increase people's confidence in the technology. I know there’s a huge debate around autonomous shipping, but we really refer to this as semi-autonomous as it’s adding a layer of safety. We do about 200 to 210 trips a year on that river and so doing those day in day out safely will really highlight the confidence in the viability of the technology in a very tight navigational area.”

“This technology has allowed us to digitise part of our operations that we didn't really have access to before,” Pierre Pelletreau VP of engineering at Rand-ASC Holdings told us. “It has driven us to optimise our operations in how we utilise the asset but also it has helped us to further mitigate our risks by increasing our consistency and has enabled us to quantify things properly.”

Furthermore, the success of this pilot on a 1979-built vessel indicates the opportunities available for semi-autonomous sailing.

“If you look at this vessel built in the 1970s and you can see that we have optimised our business though digitisation and augmentation on a vintage vessel, then think what we will be able to do on more modern vessels with more manoeuvrability. If we can eek out this much more performance on an older ship, I think we will really be able to take it to the next level on a newer vessel,” added Pelletreau.


One critical factor for ASC in choosing a technology partner was being able to customise the technology to meet its needs.

“Our captains knew what they wanted and we had a number of people who have expertise and have been doing this for a number of years on our side. So that was in place. But what we didn’t expect to find was a supplier that would say ‘tell us what you want, and we'll build it.’ That is incredibly rare, and very important to the process. That was probably one of the most important elements of this entire project,” explained Foster.

“When you're speaking with a captain that's been operating a vessel for 25 or 35 years, it’s not often that they’ve been told from a vendor that they will build something to suit you and customise it to your needs. Wärtsilä allowed us to involve our captains so that the system could be configured to suit them. Wärtsilä adjusted and changed the system multiple times to make sure it reflected what we needed, and this was a really crucial aspect for us,” continued Foster.

John Marshall, senior business development manager, automation & dynamic positioning for Wärtsilä Voyage Americas explained further. “We realised we needed to modify our system based on ASC’s requirements. Everybody knows in the maritime industry that when there is a new technology, if you don't get it right the first time, as a supplier it can set you back a couple of years. Plus, the adoption from regulatory authorities and the marine industry could also face a set back. So, we knew we had to do this properly right from the beginning. We shared the same vision as ASC and we knew we could commit the resources to the specified time-frame to do this right.”

System building challenges

One of the critical challenges for Wärtsilä was building a terrestrial-based system that would be able to distinguish threats from regular objects, as typically a terrestrial system will pick up all stationary objects. According to Marshall, it took 11 engineers from the Wärtsilä team four months to build a technology that had the capability to do this. The result was a system called SceneScan that features a rotating laser sensor that provides positional and tracking information relative to natural or man-made structures within the sen-sor field of view. SceneScan matches its current observation of the scene against a map generated from previous observations of the scene.

“Our system had to be designed in a way that when it switches from satellite into SceneScan, the offset would be no greater than a metre and a half. This was what ASC deemed acceptable, but we wanted to try to get below that. Out of the 11 bridges that ASC had to sail under, there were three areas where the risk was highest so we needed to build a terrestrial system that would provide data when the satellite signal was lost,” explained Marshall.

“It was challenging and there was an extensive amount of research done beforehand to manage the risks. We tested the technology in different waters until Wärtsilä was confident enough to roll it out onto the very narrow waters of the Cuyahoga,” noted Pelletreau.

Mission specific

Wärtsilä SmartMove has been developed to be ‘mission specific’ meaning that a company can decide how they use it to their advantage, whether that is to improve safety or reduce fuel consumption.

“Every shipping company has different operating characteristics. I think the strength of Wärtsilä is its willingness to customise and adjust this technology to reflect what's important to a particular shipowner,” said Foster. “You can buy equipment anywhere but how you adapt it to the needs of that particular shipowner or operator is where the value is. Different types of operations have different areas which they want to save money in or improve safety and being able to adjust the technology to this is really what's critical.”

While for ASC the primary goal of SmartMove was to increase navigational safety, the company will look into optimising other areas of its operations by leveraging the different offerings of the technology. “We’ll just be looking at how we can get more out of it which will be based on our learning and how we apply it in our environment,” said Pelletreau.






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