Autonomous shipping, a sci-fi dream

DEMCON Unmanned Systems received the Maritime Innovation Award 2021 in early November. Not only was this a well-respected award; it was also a token of recognition for being a frontrunner in autonomous shipping. But who are they and what makes them stand out?


Here founder Fedor Ester takes us along their journey from starting as a tech company, to ultimately becoming a small shipyard for unmanned autonomous vessels in the in the maritime capital of Europe.

With a background in civil engineering, Fedor didn’t plan to set a course towards a maritime career. A range of positions and roles eventually found him working on developing drones for unmanned airborne inspection and security applications. He immediately spotted an opportunity, with his realisation that such systems were uncharted territory for the maritime industry. This spawned the idea for a maritime start-up which led ultimately to founding DEMCON Unmanned Systems.

Industry challenge

In 2018 the newly-established firm took up an  industry challenge presented by Rotterdam-based marine contractor Van Oord. This challenge envisaged the development of a fully-unmanned alternative for crewed survey vessels. In essence the idea was to design a new type of vessel that could reach places that were still inaccessible, while retaining all the existing surveying functionalities.

The marine contractor also wanted a platform with a reduced environmental impact, increased operational safety and a larger operating window. Naturally it also had to integrate fully with the existing IT infrastructure and with opportunities for further automation and workflow digitalisation. In short: Van Oord challenged the team to come up with a solution to obtain more data faster and more sustainably, and at a lower cost.

This was music to the ears of the DEMCON team. Soon they came up with an unmanned platform that ticked all the boxes. Within a year they managed to develop and build the first robust, fully-electric and low-noise environmentally-friendly vessel: ten times lighter, three times smaller and with only half the draught. And more importantly, the ‘VO:X Metiti’ could perform autonomous operations and being controlled remotely. Meanwhile the team has built multiple platforms.

One step at a time

Fedor is keen to get across that the flexibility and scalability of their platforms opens the door to a range of crossovers to other maritime applications. The knowledge and expertise involving digital 3D world modelling with perception sensor systems also applies to automation aboard larger manned vessels such as dredgers, for example. In other words, it creates opportunities for improved competitive advantages for the entire regional maritime cluster, while also working towards a more sustainable society.

Autonomous systems are evolving at breakneck speed. Fedor is an advocate of taking one step at a time with a modular approach, of course in close cooperation with all those involved. The trick is to focus on understanding and automating individual processes, working gradually towards full automation.

Fedor notes that clients, suppliers and authorities in the Rotterdam region are not simply involved, but are also committed to making autonomous shipping a reality. Besides the need for being close to the market and a superb maritime innovation ecosystem, he also believes that cooperative and accessible authorities like the Port of Rotterdam Authority and Rijkswaterstaat are essential. Fortunately a good dialogue exists with the authorities, to work towards the required and unique regulatory framework.

Appealing to the imagination

Fedor believes that developments in autonomous shipping appeal to many people’s imaginations. They offer a glimpse into the future. Among these are the impact of electrification on creating healthy and sustainable living and working environments. Or making valuable contributions to help in resolving increasingly tight labour market conditions. Not forgetting improved safety by limiting the chance for human error. In short, it’s safe to say that autonomous shipping in the Rotterdam region is far beyond being just a sci-fi dream; it’s actually happening.

Article shared by courtesy of Rotterdam. Maritime Capital of Europe. – maritime local business guide , which has been created for businesses, entrepreneurs, investors and scientists who want to grow, innovate and make the economy sustainable. The central information storehouse where you can see at a glance what Rotterdam has to offer and where you need to be if you want to work from or collaborate with Rotterdam.

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