An update on autonomy

Autonomous ships are becoming a reality with organisations like Denmark’s ShippingLab developing new solutions and testbeds for next generation vessels. The common goal in ShippingLab is to create Denmark’s first autonomous, environmentally friendly ship and Danelec Marine is proud to be part of the effort.

Collaboration

While COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restriction made meeting our expert ShippingLab partners face-to-face impossible last year (and for the foreseeable future), we quickly adapted to meeting up in the virtual space on Microsoft Teams. It might be challenging if lockdowns persist when it comes to assembling the complete solution on the vessel, but COVID-19 should be under control once we get to this point!

Having joined ShippingLab in 2019, Danelec is now settled into the role as leader of task 2.4, which is to develop the connectivity and remote-control system for the new autonomous ferry that is currently the focus of all ShippingLab work packages. Ensuring that diverse sensor data can be integrated and prioritised for sending to the shore control centre is a key enabler of the project and autonomous ships in general.

“ShippingLab is asking us to deliver on a specific technology and we are working on a cybersecure failsafe and high-performance solution using our existing and field proven systems,” said Christian Løfquist, Product Manager, Danelec Marine. “But, while technology is in focus, being part of the initiative along with industry and academic partners like the Danish Technical University is also a fantastic experience. We get to speak to so many colleagues working in different areas and these discussions ensure that we can reflect, which helps to continuously improve our products and services for our own customers.”

Technology

As Danelec and many of our project partners believe that standardisation is a vital aspect of future digital and autonomous ships, the plan is to deploy the Vessel Remote Server (VRS) used in our DanelecConnect data communications solution to build the cybersecure ‘tunnel’ from ship-to-shore and vice versa. While we are not responsible for the communication channels, the VRS is data and service agnostic, so we can configure it to harness information from any sensor type and work with any terrestrial or satellite network.

Currently, we’re focusing on mobile technology as the ferry will work within range of the mobile network, but as autonomous ship applications move further from the coastline the VRS can still work seamlessly with satellite networks to ensure that an upstream data link is always available for monitoring and a downstream link is available for remote control, should it ever be needed. As part of our DanelecConnect solution, the VRS is already well proven; it provides detailed performance and operational data to shore offices for hundreds of vessels worldwide.

“For ShippingLab task 2.4, we’re expanding the feature set of DanelecConnect,” said Christian. “We’re adding functionality so that the VRS knows what bandwidth is available and then providing the capability to change to different operation profiles based on the current conditions. It will be more dynamic as getting data from an autonomous vessel is even more safety critical than a normal crewed vessel.”

Regulations

While the technology must work flawlessly for autonomous ships to operate safely and effectively, a key aspect of making them a reality is regulation. At present, there is certainly no international regulation, but some countries are working out their own rules on a national basis. And while ShippingLab is very technology focused, it is also acting as a conduit between industry and government in Denmark.

“We speak to the marine national authorities as part of ShippingLab,” said Christian. “There are currently no specific laws applied directly to autonomous shipping and its clear that autonomous operations must demonstrate comparable, if not stronger, safety and security than normal ships. We are in close talks with the government to share what we have learned as well as helping to define measures and address concerns that must be clarified to make everything safe and secure.”

We’ll bring you more news and insight in 2021 as ShippingLab continues building its first autonomous vessel – a ferry that will be tested in Northern Jutland towards the end of the year.