The advantages of remote-controlled vessels and wholly autonomous vessels are being highlighted by the supply chain, but there are many issues to address before they become commonplace
Wärtsilä recently tested remote-controlled operation of a platform supply vessel in the North Sea using a satellite link from California.
The tests, which involved driving the vessel through a sequence of manoeuvres using a combination of dynamic positioning (DP) and manual joystick control, were carried out on 21 August in the North Sea in collaboration with GulfMark Offshore, the US-based operator who provided the vessel for the project. Although the test vessel was in the North Sea, it was navigated remotely from a Wärtsilä office in San Diego, California, which was 8,000 km away from the ship.
Wärtsilä developed a remote-control capability for its DP systems early in 2016, but this was the first test carried out on an offshore vessel. The vessel, Highland Chieftain, is an 80 m platform supply vessel fitted with a Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum package for navigation, automation and DP, as well as a Wärtsilä drives package. Additional software was temporarily added to the DP system to route data over the vessel’s satellite link to the workstation in California.
The tests were carried out using the bandwidth available with a conventional satellite communications system. No land-based technology was used for communication between the vessel and the remote workstation. Retrofitting of the DP software was completed in 30 hours. The test was conducted over a four-hour period, during which the vessel was driven through a series of manoeuvres at high and low speed. All of the test procedures went as planned.
“Wärtsilä is committed to developing technology that enables a smart marine future. In the age of digitalisation, the future smart marine ecosystem will involve connecting ‘smart’ vessels with ‘smart’ ports to enable an even more efficient use of resources. It will also reduce the impact on the climate while enhancing safety,” claimed Wärtsilä Marine Solutions president Roger Holm.
Wärtsilä Marine Solutions head of digital Andrea Morgante said “One of the most critical hurdles to overcome along the path to the enablement of intelligent shipping is to develop efficient and reliable remote-control and monitoring capabilities, taking factors such as bandwidth limitations and cyber security into consideration. This test provides a clear indication that we are well on the way to achieving this.” He also noted that the ship was enabled for remote operation in only a few hours.
It is anticipated that Wärtsilä’s development of remote access to ships will also enable virtual service solutions for customers needing tuning or testing of their DP systems. The concept could also be used for other technology demonstrations, such as automated docking, the company believes.
Growing cyber threat needs consideration
September 2017 saw the UK Department for Transport publish its Code of Practice for Cyber Security for Ships. It also saw partners at law firm HFW highlight the potential risks involved in remote-controlled and autonomous vessel operation.
As HFW noted, cyber attacks can harm crew, vessels and cargo and cause business disruption, loss of sensitive information and damage to a company’s image. In the offshore oil and gas sector, the risks are, if anything, even greater than other parts of the shipping industry.
IT systems have become increasingly interconnected, as has the shipping industry – a process that is set to accelerate in future as the industry looks to autonomous and semi-autonomous vessels that will require propulsion and machinery system management from shore, creating new opportunities for exploitation.
The motivation for cyber attack can be wide ranging, from low-level cyber vandalism and hacktivism to espionage, terrorism and warfare, but whatever the motivation, the shipping industry must be ready to deal with this broad range of threats – and so should offshore shipowners.