Norway Readies for Autonomous Ship Testing

Published Oct 5, 2016 6:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration have signed an agreement which allows for testing of autonomous ships in the Trondheim fjord.

The Trondheim fjord will be the first such designated test area in the world.  

Announced in March as a follow-up to the Norwegian government’s new National Transport Plan, the fjord offshore Trondheim experiences light vessel traffic, making it a relatively safe place to conduct autonomous vehicle trials. The area is also home to an extensive maritime technology cluster and several major academic and research organizations. 

The initiative involves the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Kongsberg Seatex, Kongsberg Maritime, Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (Marintek), Rolls-Royce and Maritime Robotics. 

Autonomous technology is being developed to allow for remote control of a vessel with varying levels of autonomy using satellite communications. Control is therefore moved from the bridge on the ship to a center on land. If a fault or a delay occurs in the communication link, the systems must still be able to “think” for themselves and make decisions. 

Today, autonomous unmanned vehicles are used to perform tasks in so-called unstructured environments with complex, unpredictable and sometimes dangerous areas, or for surveys and mapping of geographical areas. What is now happening with full force is the development of larger pilotless vessels that can transport cargo and perhaps passengers. 

Pilotless ships to carry cargoes can be built without cabins for the crew and without air conditioning systems that would otherwise be needed for the welfare of people on board. They are therefore expected to be both easier and cheaper to build. 

In the future, the speed of freight traffic could be adapted more precisely to the cargo on board. This could provide environmental benefits by slowing some cargo transport down. It also has the potential to cut operating costs.

Unmanned vessels could also be built in ways that make them less vulnerable to attack – from pirates, for example. However, cyber security is an area that is expected to involve significant attention.

Asgeir Johan Sørensen, Director of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems, says that the rapid development of autonomous systems will create completely new demands for dealing with risk and management of risk. Qualification of new technology and operations will call for an approach that focuses more on function and risk. The bottleneck for further development of the technology lies here, he believes.

“For the entire industry, it is demanding to keep up with developments. For government agencies and classification societies, it’s going to be a major challenge to follow up standards and regulations, including adequate testing and verification in this area,” he says.

In the test area, the AUTOSEA project with focus on automated situational awareness will use the area as a test site for using sensor fusion to reduce the risk of collisions between ships when increased level of autonomy is introduced. The AUTOSEA project will, in addition to conventional maritime radar, include sensor types not normally used for such purposes in the maritime sector, such as cameras, infrared and LIDAR.

The Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) is also being established – a forum initiated by the Norwegian Maritime Authority, the Norwegian Coastal Administration, Norwegian industry and Marintek.