From autonomous cars to e-mobility in shipping: electric, digital, connected

The rapid development and adoption of new technology by consumers will transform shipping assumptions.

Shipping takes its cue for the growth in seaborne traffic from global trends in GDP, but new factors are having a profound effect on the economics of transportation. One of them is the accelerating urbanization; another is the urban pollution. Last but not least, there is the digitalization that is transforming logistics and asset management.

These trends, too, have significant consequences for shipping: increased urbanization can change shipping routes; electric (or hybrid) cars have an effect on driving the shift to marine e-mobility; and, as the driverless automobile becomes a “when, not if” proposition, parallels with ship automation can be easily drawn.

Car makers are now prioritizing R&D investment in electric cars, taking advantage of their relative simplicity, easier control, easier updating and reduced losses in energy conversions when compared to conventional engines. This year, ABB’s affinity with e-mobility has been expressed through its role as the title partner of ABB FIA Formula E Championship, the fully electric international FIA motorsport class.

The way to marine e-mobility

Back in the maritime context, ABB’s “Electric. Digital. Connected.” strategy envisages shipping taking steps towards better exploitation of battery power and higher levels of automation and autonomy. That said, each step would have to prove its value in improved operational efficiency or enhanced safety, or indeed, both.

The discussion around autonomous ships and navigation has been intense. We consider that most of these discussions actually neglect the fact that the power and drive trains of the ships also needs to evolve to accommodate the needs of an increasingly automated shipping business. Ships need to be able to sustain fault scenarios and self-heal. Electric systems can also be easily diagnosed and reconfigured in a secure manner remotely.

We also think that discussions on the future of autonomous ships may be chasing a hare that is not yet running. High levels of automation may indeed be appropriate where ships are operating on short distances close to shore and along repetitive routes, but that does not necessarily mean these are unmanned ships. Instead, a fully electric propulsion system, featuring batteries which are recharged by shore-side power, would likely mean lower continuous maintenance (no lubrication or filter changes, for example), which could be supported remotely or by ad-hoc visits by a service crew.

More generally, we do not believe that the global disappearance of ship crews from oceangoing ships is imminent: as well as being on hand to take control of the vessel, crews will still be needed to look after duties such as machinery maintenance, administration, communications and port calls, to name but a few.

Rather than concentrating primarily on navigational safety issues, the ‘digital and connected’ ship debate should be focusing on the way electric propulsion can help automate aspects of ship functionality to the benefit of operating costs, safety and he environment.

Electric platform for intelligent ship

Already, shipboard sensors are routinely used as a data source to optimize vessel operations and achieve just-in-time delivery with the least energy consumed. ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations Centers are already harnessing cloud-based analytics to help prevent, predict and rectify remote equipment problems. Every day ABB is collecting gigabytes of data from more than 900 connected vessels, with its shore-side experts offering support to engineers on the ship from afar.

With sensor technology deployment costs falling fast as volumes increase, current and near-term developments are expected to include lifecycle techniques such as service robotics and additive printing to enable automatic and autonomous service operations.

As far as individual technologies are concerned, also fast-developing is LIDAR (light detection and ranging), the radar and camera solution that can be combined with positioning data to achieve highly accurate machine vision and navigation. Typical of what is already possible is ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision, delivered for the first time last November to a harbor ferry operator in Helsinki. ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision fuses system and sensor data to give the bridge team a 360-degree, third-party view of the vessel in a real-world environment – much like what we see in advanced parking assist systems. This eliminates blind spots and helps prevent accidents that could result in considerable damage costs.

Again, we have even begun to explore the circumstances where available technology could support periodically unmanned bridge operations during uneventful parts of a voyage, with the clear objective of reducing fatigue and improving safety by enhancing the performance of crew when they are on the bridge.

As experience from consumer markets shows, attitudes as well as technologies need to mature in order for trust and confidence to proceed to “next level” usage. In the “step-by-step” scenario, the best electric, digital and connected technologies will be those best supporting bridge teams in their delivery of the ship and its cargo safely, on schedule and with minimal environmental impact.

In the immediate term, these will be the technologies that support crews in achieving faster turnarounds in port and so allow for the lower speeds to the next destination that save fuel. They will be the technologies that speed up regulatory compliance and maintenance or improve business critical ship functions such as maneuvering and mooring. And they will be the technologies that best support crews in their role as guardians, alert enough to intervene whenever safety, efficiency or environmental responsibility is compromised.

We believe that the technologies that we develop today will lay a solid foundation for more automated ships of the future.

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About the author

Mikko Lepistö

Mikko Lepistö is globally responsible for the software and automation business at ABB Marine & Ports. Mikko has held several global management positions within ABB in service, automation and software businesses. With his background in software, automation and system technology and experience from the marine business, Mikko’s role is to develop the next generation digital solutions and services to support the transition towards electric, digital and connected vessels. Mikko holds MSc in automation and control technology from Helsinki University of Technology.
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