Op-Ed: Lean-Crewed and Uncrewed Vessels are the Future of Offshore
According to marine technology company Ocean Infinity, remotely controlled vessel operations - and in future, autonomous vessel operations - will become standard practice, even for complex offshore tasks.
Few maritime industry commentators would question that autonomous shipping will be one of the fastest growing areas of shipping in the coming decades. The technology is already 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 represents the low-hanging fruit of maritime autonomy, because much of human activity at sea requires more input than steering a vessel from point A to point B without running over any yachts.
Compare a typical survey vessel to a ferry. Unlike the ferry, which follows a regular timetable in and out of familiar ports, the survey vessel will operate in different locations for every job. Its work will likely be remotely located, and it may need to launch and recover a range of fragile and expensive assets like towed sonar arrays and ROVs in a wide range of sea states.
Complexity and its challenges
With so many more variables to consider, it is no surprise that there are those who 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 that complex operations have more scope for requiring the kinds of tweaks and workarounds that humans onboard carry out today. Even simple things like wiping weeds 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 roll of paper towels.
However, there are three compelling 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 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," says Broussard. "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 much of what Ocean Infinity does, at least in these early stages of the company’s development, simply moves the human operator from the deck of a vessel to a control room ashore. If there is still a human operator, how can that reduce human error? Broussard identifies two important considerations.
“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," he says. "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 will be made real by Ocean Infinity with the opening of its first remote control center (RCC) in Southampton, UK in May 2023.
The RCC enables multiple ships operating in a range of maritime jurisdictions to undertake complex tasks "lean crewed" (and in future, un-crewed). It is the first location in a worldwide roll-out of RCCs for Ocean Infinity, complementing the firm's new fleet of purpose-built work ships of up to 280 feet in length - the Armada fleet.
The RCC is equipped with 20 individual control pods, or "bridges," each fitted with a helmsman’s seat and specific controls. Managerial staff work on more conventional office-type workstations inboard, overseeing multiple vessels and operations anywhere in the world.
Keeping the same look and feel of a vessel's 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.
Of course, there are limits imposed in controlling vessel operations from the other side of the world. Bandwidth is 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 meter and hover’, or ‘return to mothership.'"
Walking before running
For good reasons, Ocean Infinity is not rushing headlong to deploy autonomous 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 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," he says. "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."
Stakeholders may come to expect the benefits that such lean crewed, remotely-controlled and significantly automated operations have brought to the industry. In Ocean Infinity's view, it is unlikely that traditionally crewed vessel operators will be able to offer the same advantages, as it is only through the challenges of making these operations work with lean crews that the necessary systems and methods are uncovered.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.