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Royal IHC plans to make autonomous vessels a reality

2023-05-31 Tamara Parkin

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Jacco Osnabrugge and Laurens Klootwijk

Autonomy in varying degrees is advancing in all transport industries and offers the promise of greater efficiency, cost savings and improved safety. The maritime sector is no stranger to automation, with some major milestones reached in recent years. In 2022 we saw the inaugural voyage of a fully autonomous commercial ship and the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 105) approved a road map for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The race is now on to build the first autonomous dredgers, but there are plenty of stages of automation yet to be introduced, and technological and regulatory hurdles to overcome. 

“Dredging automation is advancing,” Jacco Osnabrugge, the research and development manager at Royal IHC says. “Since 2018, when we started the autonomous dredging operations program, we have witnessed the emerging trend of autonomous shipping in the maritime industry and also the development of advanced automation in dredging. The progress of automation in the wider maritime industry and dredging made us realise that we started our research and development at the right time.”

The autonomous system, called ‘Mission Master’, connects different lower level systems onboard including the dynamic positioning system, path planning and dredging control, to increase the autonomy of the dredging and offloading process. These processes are core phases for hopper dredgers, which Royal IHC aims to automate, meaning the current main focus is increasing the autonomy of these and then other aspects such as collision avoidance.  

Laurens Klootwijk, the sales, design and estimation manager at Royal IHC adds, “it makes sense to invest in research and development now, so that we already have a resource and database that we can learn from, [and] further develop and adapt to future industry needs.” 

Assisted automation

Through the ‘Mission Master’ system, Royal IHC introduces a higher degree of automation in dredging. 

“The first step we are aiming for is assisted autonomy, where the system does all of the action but requires confirmation from a human onboard,” says Osnabrugge, adding, “it means critical actions like putting the suction tubes overboard are confirmed by a human supervisor before the automated action will be performed.”

When speaking with Osnabrugge and Klootwijk, it was clear that working on degree A2 of autonomy was a conscious decision. “It’s important to implement automation step by step, following maritime’s proposed steps of autonomy. As it's a complex system, it’s crucial that we test each step and involve experienced industry professionals with the process so that they become familiar with the technology that they will eventually be using,” states Osnabrugge. 

Klootwijk builds on this to say, “working through the degrees of automation does mean gradually lessening the involvement of crew on project sites; however, you can’t disconnect people from the development process. The industry can’t swallow big steps in automation. They want to have an understanding of what it is, what it does and how it will help them. Removing that involvement will only create a divide between technology and humans.” 

Overcoming crew shortages 

Osnabrugge explains the key driving factors behind developing autonomous technology are  “efficiency and safety”. He adds: “We already have systems in place that assist with this, however, it doesn’t hurt to have extra systems that can make dredging projects safer and more efficient. It’s also important to recognise that, as an industry, we are currently experiencing a shortage of seafarers, which is expected to increase in the future. Through autonomous systems, we can help lessen the impacts of crew shortages.” 

“A shortage of crew means there is also a shortage of experienced people in the industry," says Klootwijk. “If the industry cannot find new talent to replace experienced crew who have retired, how will we continue conducting efficient, safe and sustainable dredging operations? Automated technology contributes to fill this gap.” 

Osnabrugge adds “and it appeals to the tech-savvy younger generation who have grown up in an era of great technological progress with computers, game consoles, mobile phones and apps.

Simulation technology 

As a designer, builder and supplier of vessels, Royal IHC does not own vessels, meaning they are unable to test automation prototypes or other technology onboard. However, with the in-house hardware in the loop (HIL) simulator, they can repeatedly test the performance and user experience of various conditions and autonomous functionalities.

Klootwijk explains that a simulation “allows crew who know the behaviour of their own vessels to test and implement the autonomous system in a safe environment. It provides an opportunity for vessel performance comparison, something that would be far more difficult to accurately test and replicate in the real world. By simulating a project, crew can investigate what the most efficient approach may be, saving fuel, optimising production, increasing safety, and allowing the crew to test an environment multiple times.”

He adds that collaborating with industry experts allows Royal IHC to gather data from people with “real-world dredging experience”. They then can  update and correct any omissions within the software, “ensuring that we develop automation that works for industry purposes”. 

Next steps

Though still in simulation testing, Royal IHC wants the Mission Master to be installed and start validation tests onboard an existing vessel by the end of 2023. Another step is to further increase the  autonomy level of the Mission Master system. “Having a human in the loop onboard acting as a supervisor and confirming actions is the first step,” Osnabrugge tells CEDA Industry News. “If the system is robust enough and the autonomy level is developed, the next stage is to shift the supervision from onboard to onshore and have a remote control station.”

“Though this is the next big step, we recognise that one of the biggest challenges will be ensuring that there is a safe, viable connection 24/7 between the vessel and the onshore supervisory team,” states Klootwijk, adding that “safety is of utmost importance, and we recognise that at the moment there are obstacles to this, particularly as losing connection with a vessel could result in collision with another.”

Osnabrugge notes that “offshore connections are improving” and more advanced automation in dredging is not far over the horizon. He concludes: “We can see that bandwidth is increasing and delay times are decreasing, which will help with the realisation of a higher level autonomous system or vessel.”


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