E-Mobility in Shipping: Electric, Digital, Connected

Mikko Lepist? (image courtesy ABB)

Published Jul 11, 2018 1:36 PM by Mikko Lepisto

Shipping takes its cue for the growth in seaborne traffic from global trends in GDP, but new factors like shipboard automation and electric propulsion are also having an effect on the economics of transportation.

On shore, car makers are now prioritizing R&D investment in electric cars, taking advantage of their relative simplicity, ease of control, easier updating and reduced losses in energy conversions when compared to conventional engines. ABB has significant involvement with electric vehicles - it is the title partner of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, the fully electric FIA motorsport class – and it is also a leader in electric propulsion and integrated shipboard systems.

In the maritime context, ABB’s “Electric. Digital. Connected.” strategy envisages shipping taking steps towards better exploitation of battery power and higher levels of automation and autonomy. That said, each step would have to prove its value in improved operational efficiency, safety or both.

The discussion around autonomous ships and navigation has been intense. We consider that most of these discussions actually neglect the fact that the power and drive trains of the ships also needs to evolve to accommodate the needs of an increasingly automated shipping business. Ships need to be able to sustain fault scenarios and self-heal, and electric systems can be easily diagnosed and reconfigured in a secure manner remotely.

We also think that discussions on the future of autonomous ships may be chasing a hare that is not yet running. High levels of automation may indeed be appropriate where ships are operating on short distances close to shore and along repetitive routes, but that does not necessarily mean these are unmanned ships. Instead, a fully electric propulsion system, featuring batteries which are recharged by shoreside power, would likely mean lower continuous maintenance (no lubrication or filter changes, for example), which could be supported remotely or by ad-hoc visits by a service crew.

More generally, we do not believe that the global disappearance of ship crews from oceangoing ships is imminent: as well as being on hand to take control of the vessel, crews will still be needed to look after duties such as machinery maintenance, administration, communications and port calls, to name but a few.

Rather than concentrating primarily on navigational safety issues, the ‘digital and connected’ ship debate should be focusing on the way electric propulsion can help automate aspects of ship functionality to the benefit of operating costs, safety and he environment.

An electric platform for an intelligent ship

Already, shipboard sensors are routinely used as a data source to optimize vessel operations and achieve just-in-time delivery with the least energy consumed. ABB AbilityTM Collaborative Operations Centers are already harnessing cloud-based analytics to help prevent, predict and rectify remote equipment problems. Every day, ABB it is collecting gigabytes of data from more than 900 connected vessels, with its shore-side experts offering support to engineers on the ship from afar.

With sensor technology costs falling fast as volumes increase, current and near-term developments are expected to include lifecycle techniques such as service robotics and additive printing to enable automatic and autonomous service operations. Also fast-developing is LIDAR (light detection and ranging), the radar and camera solution that can be combined with positioning data to achieve highly accurate machine vision and navigation. Typical of what is already possible is ABB AbilityTM Marine Pilot Vision, delivered for the first time last November to a harbor ferry operator in Helsinki. ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision fuses system and sensor data to give the bridge team a 360-degree, third-party view of the vessel in a real-world environment – much like what we see in advanced parking assist systems. This eliminates blind spots and helps prevent accidents.

We have even begun to explore the circumstances where available technology could support periodically unmanned bridge operations during uneventful parts of a voyage, with the objective of reducing fatigue and improving safety by enhancing the performance of crew when they are on the bridge.

As experience from consumer markets shows, attitudes as well as technologies need to mature in order for trust and confidence to proceed to “next level” usage. In the “step-by-step” scenario, the best electric, digital and connected technologies will be those best supporting bridge teams in their delivery of the ship and its cargo safely, on schedule and with minimal environmental impact.

In the immediate term, these will be the technologies that support crews in achieving faster turnarounds in port, allowing lower speeds to the next destination to save fuel. They will be the technologies that speed up regulatory compliance and maintenance or improve business-critical ship functions such as maneuvering and mooring. And they will be the technologies that best support crews in their role as guardians, alert enough to intervene whenever safety, efficiency or environmental responsibility is compromised.

We believe that the technologies that we develop today will lay a solid foundation for more automated ships of the future.

Mikko Lepistö is Senior Vice President of Digital Solutions at ABB Marine & Ports.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.