According to marine technology pioneers Ocean Infinity, remote control vessel operations, and in future entirely autonomous vessel operations will be a standard methodology, even for the complex offshore tasks always deemed ‘too difficult’ to automate.
Few maritime industry commentators would dare in 2023 to say that autonomous shipping is set to be anything other than one of the fastest growing areas of shipping in the next decades. The technology is very much there for certain tasks- the waters of Norway, for example, are seeing ever-increasing numbers of inter-island ferries and small cargo vessels making their way safely on fixed routes without a captain or crew on the bridge. But this has represented the low-hanging fruit of maritime autonomy because much of human activity at sea requires a great deal more input than steering a vessel from point A to point B without running over any yachts.
Consider a typical vessel running an offshore operation to collect seabed data, versus a ferry. Unlike the ferry, which follows a regular timetable in and out of familiar ports, the data collection vessel will operate in different locations for every job. Its work will likely be much more remotely located, and it may need to launch and recover a range of fragile and expensive assets from towed sonar arrays to ROVs (Remotely Operated underwater Vehicles) in a wide range of sea states.
With so many more variables to consider it is no surprise that despite the obvious inroads made into autonomous shipping lately, there are those who continue to argue that working offshore in more complex ways, especially those tasks involving interaction with the seabed, will continue to require a number of offshore workers. It is true to say that complex operations have more scope for things to not run according to plan, requiring tweaks and workarounds that humans, on the vessel, have always been the solution for. Even simple things like wiping weed off the camera lens of an inspection class ROV between dives can be remarkably challenging for robotic systems, but something of a non-issue for an offshore worker armed with a square of kitchen roll.
However, there are three compelling, and ever-growing, reasons for increasing the proportion of offshore vessel operations that are conducted remotely, according to Josh Broussard, Chief Technology Officer at Ocean Infinity: “Operations at sea have a high HSE (Health, Safety and Environment) exposure. With more automated operations we can remove humans from potential areas of harm. Less dramatically, we can also remove humans from repetitive, dirty and often, consequently difficult-to-recruit roles that come under the three Ds- Dull, Dirty or Dangerous. On the environmental side, consider a typical support vessel working offshore with ROVs. If it has a crew of 60, it needs to be a large vessel with suitably large engines, generators and all the necessary facilities for this large group of people. But we also need to consider all of the aspects that are more indirect- a crew of 60 could potentially mean 120 people flying all over the world for change over, perhaps every four weeks. Thirdly, most faults that occur in offshore operations can be traced back to human error. When we reduce the human presence on the vessel, we can reduce the prevalence of human error.”
Naysayers could argue that while remote-controlled operations clearly get a big HSE tick, much of what Ocean Infinity does, at least in these early stages of the company’s development, simply move the human operator from the deck of a vessel to a control room ashore, so how can that reduce the human errors? Broussard identifies two important considerations here: “Conducting operations remotely forces you to automate multiple aspects aboard the vessel, looking more thoroughly than ever before at systems and processes. There are of course bugs and errors at the start of such new automations, but once you’ve got rid of the errors you are left with a highly efficient repeat task. It’s also important to remember that on a modern vessel, many of the systems are already controlled over networks. Much of what drives this technology is a bandwidth and latency problem, not the idea of the remote control itself. There is also the matter of working on a vessel offshore, versus working on the same vessel remotely, onshore, in the worker’s town or city. Consider when you would be more likely to make a mistake- after a rough, fitful night’s sleep in a vessel offshore, or after a night at home in your own bed and a short commute.”
This aspect is set to be made flesh by Ocean Infinity with the opening of its first Remote Control Centre (RCC) in Southampton, UK in May 2023.
The RCC enables, for the first time, anywhere in the world, multiple ships operating in a range of maritime jurisdictions to undertake complex tasks lean crewed (in future un-crewed), and over the horizon from a shore-based location, via the latest communication technologies.
It is the first location in a worldwide roll-out of RCCs for Ocean Infinity, which has been run in concert with the company’s design and building of an entire fleet of purpose-designed lean-crewed work ships up to 86m in size- the Armada fleet.
The RCC is equipped with 20 individual control pods, ‘Bridges’, each equipped with a (marine specification) helmsman’s seat and specific controls designed to deliver peerless situational awareness. Managerial staff work on more conventional office-type workstations inboard, overseeing multiple vessels and operations, anywhere in the world.
Carrying across the same look and feel of a vessel bridge is more than a gimmick for the RCC. The operators in the RCC are as much as possible conducting the same job they would conduct on the vessel itself, with the same qualifications and the same experience. A skilled and suitably qualified operator in the RCC could be operating one vessel or ROV in one ocean for one hour, and a different vessel in a different ocean the next. This presents opportunities for customers to reduce unnecessary, unplanned, and costly downtime. For example, if an RCC-managed ROV launch happens to be delayed by bad weather, the RCC-based ROV operator, instead of finding other tasks to perform aboard a loitering ship, can switch to another ROV operation in another ocean.
There are of course limits imposed in controlling vessel operations from the other side of the world. Bandwidth is clearly one of them, particularly when it comes to underwater vehicles. “We work with commands rather than direct controls,” explains Manuel Parente, Chief Information Officer at Ocean Infinity. “With a tethered ROV, our operators don’t control it in perfect real time- the lag between, say, steering input and the ROV reacting, then its new position being picked up by its navigation and camera systems and relayed back to the operator would be very difficult to work with. Imagine walking into your house wearing a VR headset and playing a video of the same process one to two seconds delayed- you’d most likely fall over in the hallway. Instead, our operators use asynchronous communication, issuing commands to a smarter generation of subsea vehicles, such as ‘move forward one metre and hover’, or ‘return to mothership’. To mitigate the challenges posed by low bandwidth and high latency, including adding low earth orbit satellite communications to the Ocean Infinity Armada fleet, remote control centres often rely on specialised communication technologies that are optimised for efficiency and reliability. Asynchronous communication involves sending commands to a subsea vehicle that can be executed later when the signal is received which allows for more precise control over the vehicle, even when there is a delay in the transmission of data. Additionally, advancements in satellite communications have made it possible to establish faster and more reliable connections in remote locations, which can help to reduce latency and improve overall performance. By utilising these methods and technologies, remote control centres can continue to operate effectively and efficiently, even in challenging environments with limited connectivity.”
Walking before running
For good reasons, Ocean Infinity is not rushing headlong towards complete vessel autonomy- vessels without a single soul aboard, although its latest crop of Armada vessels will support this. At the moment, partially due to legislative lag in some parts of the world, Ocean Infinity is onshoring more of the crew responsible for operating and managing the vessels’ payloads than it is reducing the vessels’ navigational and command crew numbers. Crews required to navigate vessels are rightfully legally mandated and already small, so the benefits of reducing them further are smaller than the benefits available by reducing all the other workers aboard a typical survey vessel, for example.
According to Andre Reinlert, Ocean Infinity’s Data Innovation Manager, it is in onshoring these data-related workers that the real benefits lie because onshoring operators require the data to be moved from vessel to RCC straight away: “Our operations get insights through to stakeholders more quickly than traditional methods ever did. Formerly data would arrive with the stakeholder through digital deliveries, sometimes weeks after a survey, now thanks to edge processing, both on the underwater vehicle and onboard the vessel equipped with banks of servers for storage and computing, insights from data can be provided within minutes. Quicker data delivery means quicker actioning of that data and so more efficient overall operation. There is also not the space constraint imposed by a vessel- clients and stakeholders can visit our control centres as and when required, or witness the operation remotely online, evaluating data as it comes in.” This method also facilitates faster decision-making by presenting data and other information to many stakeholders, formerly only to the client representative onboard.
Ocean Infinity has been operating across the world’s oceans, with increasing levels of automation since 2017. The company has had an incremental development strategy that the conservative and risk-averse maritime industry dictates, but it has nevertheless already seen some remarkable wins. High-profile subsea searches for Malaysian Airlines MH370, and the successful finding of lost vessels including MV Stellar Daisy, Shackleton’s Endurance and Argentine submarine San Juan, have already demonstrated Ocean Infinity’s capabilities in multi-AUV missions covering vast areas of seabed in short timeframes.
System of sytems
Another necessity of operating remotely that brings advantages is the need for a closed loop method of doing things. Overarching software managing the whole operation provides a task-orientated, ‘system of systems’ approach. As Dale Wakeham, Ocean Infinity’s System Architect explains, this brings a range of benefits by reducing siloed capabilities. “On an offshore data collection vessel, there may be one team who only fly the AUVs, another that deals with launch and recovery, data transfer, etc, all using their own standalone software. When we control operations remotely these teams, or more correctly the software controlling these tasks needs to be integrated with all previously disparate systems seamlessly. Formerly vessels could ‘get away with’ using multiple interfaces for completing individual tasks as there were dozens of specialists aboard the ship to fill the gaps and with an expectation that data would not need to be output to the stakeholders for weeks anyway, this imperfect situation was tolerated.”
It seems that now companies like Ocean Infinity have set the bar higher, and stakeholders may come to expect the benefits that such lean crewed remote controlled and significantly automated operations have brought to the industry and come to expect these benefits from all operators. It is however unlikely that traditionally crewed vessel operators will be able to offer the same advantages as it has only been through the actual imperatives of making these operations work with lean crews that the necessary systems and methods are being uncovered.