Autonomous Vessels: Already Working, but Still Under Close Review

Tom Ewing

Advances in autonomous vessels – from R&D to regulatory policies to actual work – are moving rapidly. AVs include a range of vessel types and missions, from freight to law enforcement to research to defense. There are many acronyms. Some examples –

  • AV stands for autonomous vessel.
  • AUV is autonomous underwater vessel.
  • MASS stands for “maritime autonomous surface ship.”
  • NOMARS is a U.S. Department of Defense term for “no manning required ship.”

Different…but maybe not so different
Surface and underwater operations present rather obvious contrasts regarding changes and challenges that AVs can imply for ports and harbors. A research AUV launched from a mothership in a remote area, for example, usually doesn’t raise questions about harbor operations.

In contrast, port and energy officials along the East Coast will likely be pacing the floors when the first trans-Atlantic MASS containership moves closer and closer during an Atlantic storm, working its way between new wind turbines.

With AVs, though, above water or below is just part of the story. There are common issues across AVs and applications and missions. It’s important to keep in mind that with AVs, autonomy itself is a separate subject, really the paramount subject, and it’s the developments in autonomy that are the game changers. This extends beyond the electronic wizardry and algorithms that create “situational awareness.” Autonomy can change everything about a vessel – its shape, materials, design and propulsion. Autonomy presents a chance to completely rethink maritime machines, uh, ships.

Again: new perspectives. Surface vs. submerged is variable. That mothership notion is dated. An AUV can sail as a MASS vessel. Consider an AUV launching itself from, say, a site on the Patapsco River, south of Baltimore, heading toward the Chesapeake Bay but not submerging until it’s well past Virginia Beach.

A final mission may be remote and underwater, but not the trip to work and back home.

Maritime experts expect strong demand for AV operations. Issues and questions about risk, safety and oversight are at play now. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is reviewing and evaluating AV operations, for surface ships and for ports. So too is Transport Canada. In the U.S., National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) personnel have autonomous issues on their radar, across all transport modes. NTSB works with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) on IMO’s AV policy efforts.

Coast Guard Policy Letter
On April 30, the USCG updated Policy Letter 22-01, which presents “Guidelines for Human-Supervised Testing of Remote Controlled and Autonomous Systems On Vessels,” first released in 2022 (the update adds reference to using AVs for spaceflight recovery).

In the letter, the Coast Guard notes that “artificial intelligence and computer controls potentially provide the maritime industry with new and innovative tools to expand remote and autonomous systems beyond that permitted under current legal and regulatory structures.” The letter presents an application pathway for USCG project review, starting with the Captain of the Port, then moving up to the Marine Safety Center for final decisions.

Since publishing the Policy Letter, the USCG said it has received just five inquiries for port and harbor AV projects. It added, though, that these projects were somewhat “hypothetical,” falling outside the scope of the policy letter.

Making AVs work in the real world – the Yara Birkeland
Yara, based in Norway, is the world’s leading crop nutrition company. In 2017, Yara teamed up with Kongsberg, the Norwegian engineering-technology company, to build the world's first autonomous and zero-emission container vessel: the Yara Birkeland, a 120 TEU vessel to transport fertilizer from Yara’s Porsgrunn plant, across a fjord, to a port in Brevik, replacing 40,000 diesel truck loads per year. The ship was built by Vard.

The joint venture led to a new company – Massterly, established specifically to operate autonomous vessels (note that the name builds on MASS “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships”).

Yara Birkeland started operation in spring 2022. Full autonomy is planned for 2024. Then, operations will be tracked from Massterly’s remote operations center (ROC).

Yara Birkeland, the world's first autonomous and fully electric containership (Photo: Yara)

Roger Trinterud is Chief Growth Officer at Massterly. As the two-year testing phase concludes, Trinterud said that the initial onboard crew of five has been scaled back to two. Automated systems and supervision have moved to the ROC. He expects it will be another year before the ship is completely uncrewed. The operational shift has been deliberately gradual, providing time to test, verify, and possibly change, each task. “This has proven to be more time-consuming than expected,” Trinterud said, but he added that the “safety and performance of the Yara Birkeland has been outstanding.”

Trinterud explained that redundancies dominate power, propulsion, control and communication systems. Twelve high-definition cameras and two radars integrate with AIS and vessel charting, creating a “clear picture” of vessel surroundings, information simultaneously sent to ROC operators who can intervene.

Connectivity depends on three independent communication links which are used variously, depending on activity, operational area and potential risk.

Trinterud said that absent international regulations it is expected that the Norwegian Maritime Administration will allow regulatory exemptions after project managers complete an evaluation and analysis showing how “all thinkable fault scenarios” will be dealt with.

Discussions continue regarding the removal of systems required for traditional ships, but not important on an AV. “Getting this resolved,” Trinterud said, “is paramount to reducing the cost and complexity of autonomous ships.”

Finally, Trinterud was asked about port modifications. At Porsgrunn, a new mooring system and quay and a crane were added. The Brevik export terminal needed just minor modifications.

Making AVs work – underwater, anywhere… Cellula Robotics
Alex Johnson is Director of Products for Cellula Robotics Ltd., headquartered in Burnaby, British Columbia. Cellula develops and builds advanced AUV systems. Cellula’s various Solus vehicles provide a range of capabilities, from noise monitoring to seabed mapping.

Johnson was asked about emerging demands within the submersible market. He highlighted two top customer concerns: range and endurance for extended missions. Older AUVs, he said, could work solo for two or three days before needing a recharge. Now, new vessels can operate for weeks, possibly months.

“The inquiries we get,” Johnson said, “all pertain to vessel capabilities and how long it can stay somewhere. These vessels are building an operational capability that people haven’t considered until now.” Range can exceed 3,000 kilometers, working solo for three to four weeks.

“Having lots of energy allows (an AUV) to go down, throttle back, so to speak, and remain dormant,” Johnson said. An AUV, for example, can explore a particular site, stay quiet for a few days, then return to document any changes. Typical tasks include geophysical surveys and pipeline and subsea cable inspections, as well as defense missions, e.g., surveillance.

Advances with hydrogen fuel cells are proving critical. “We’re trying to leverage consumer automotive H2 fuel cell technology,” Johnson said, “because that lowers the barrier to entry and existing infrastructures provide consumer confidence.”

Solus-XR at sea trials.  Solus-XR is designed to achieve 5000 km range over 45 days of continuous operation and hibernate in low power mode for months on the sea floor. (Photo: Cellula Robotics)

Placing a H2 system in an undersea vessel, though, requires some serious engineering adaptations. A surface H2 system can pull oxygen from the air. Underwater, oxygen – and H2 – have to be carried. Explosive gases can’t be vented. Johnson said that “a lot of industry research right now is going into H2 power systems that meet the unique demands of operating under water.”

Johnson was asked about connections between subsea and MASS vessels.

He predicts that regulatory issues will impact both. In Canada the subsea industry expects that AUVs will need to be MASS compliant. “Hopefully,” he commented, “both the commercial and defense sectors can rapidly adapt, along with regulators, so AVs evolve to everyone’s benefit.”

Making AVs work: ports and harbors – Sea Machines
In April, Sea Machines Robotics, based in Boston, unveiled a new uncrewed surface vessel (USV) – the SELKIE 7 – geared for missions ranging from hydrographic surveying, logistics, and persistent on water operations such as security and environmental studies. The SELKIE is convertible, i.e., when needed, an operator can take over manual control.

Emma Grant, a spokesperson for Sea Machines, said that project designers worked from established specifications and capabilities; vessel components were selected to ensure optimal performance and allow seamless AV-human integration. The Sea Machines team used HDPE construction and oversized hardware, where possible, to offset the fact that without a crew structural fatigue and damage could go unnoticed.

Grant said AV vessels are difficult to produce – at scale – that combine ruggedness, reliability and are intuitive. She said the SELKIE’s “turnkey solution” combines these attributes and avoids downtime because it can be operated via different pathways. Range and endurance are up to 500 nautical miles and up to 30 days. Cargo storage is equivalent to 2 x 1.3 meters (two Euro Pallets) and remotely controllable deck hatches can deploy payloads at sea. The 23’ length with high-freeboard, Seakeeper gyro and wave break makes SELKIE suitable for open ocean operations, up to at least Sea State 5.

Grant was asked about port revisions for SELKIE operations. She said, “No revisions must be made to have SELKIE 7 integrate with port or docking facilities.”

She added, though, that Sea Machines and its customers plan AV operations with local Coast Guard sectors. She commented that the USCG, regarding AV issues, “has been great to work with.” Overseas, Sea Machines follows a host country’s regulations; the company has active AV projects across Europe, Australia and in the United Arab Emirates.

Preparing for more work – IMO regulations being developed
The IMO has been focused on AV operations for a number of years, but its work has been particularly active in the last two. In April, for example, the IMO Legal Committee approved a “revised road map for addressing legal issues related to MASS.” Also, in April the IMO hosted a webinar on MASS challenges for ports and public authorities.

In May, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee’s agenda continues its MASS work, focusing on a 2023 Joint Working Group report detailing inherent MASS issues and concerns. Some seem almost otherworldly. For example, the JWG cites agreement that:

  • There should be a human master responsible, regardless of mode of operation or degree or level of autonomy. However, the master may not need to be on board, depending on the technology used;
  • Regardless of operation or level of autonomy, the master should have the means to intervene when necessary;
  • Requirements for remote operators need further discussion;
  • One person may be responsible for multiple MASS; again, more discussion needed;
  • At a ROC, individuals not directly working with a ship (e.g., researchers) should not be considered as remote operators.

The IMO’s MASS “roadmap” work is expected to continue until 2027. Important steps and dates include:

  • An assessment, by spring 2025, of the final non-mandatory MASS code and consideration of treaty amendments and proposals and guidelines for new rules.
  • By spring 2026, finish work on the mandatory MASS code and review new rules presented for consideration.
  • Then, by spring 2027, adopt or approve “amendments to, or interpretations of, treaties under the purview of the Legal Committee.”

The U.S. participates in the MASS Joint Working Group, which also includes observers from various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who attend “in consultative status,” according to the 2023 JWG Report. Some NGOs include the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Organization for Standardization, the International Maritime Pilots’ Association and the Harbour Masters’ Association and the World Shipping Council.

Marine News Magazine, page 28,  Jun 2024

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