The road to autonomous vessel tech

Published on 14 December 2017

The launch of the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel in November is just  the beginning for Maersk, as it explores the potential benefits of autonomous technologies across the  Transport & Logistics division.
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Camera’s Eye View: Svitzer Captain René Malmstrøm, maneuvers the tugboat, Svitzer Hermod, around Copenhagen harbour from a Rolls Royce Remote Operating Centre (ROC). Photo: Rolls Royce

Sitting in a sleek, white chair with joysticks and touch screens at his fingertips, René Malmstrøm looks more like an actor rehearsing on the set of Star Trek than a tugboat captain.

The captain is doing his usual job, sailing Svitzer Hermod around Copenhagen harbour, but instead of standing onboard he is sailing it remotely from this futuristic chair in an office half a kilometre away. 

Svitzer Hermod is the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel and the result of a long collaboration between Rolls Royce and Maersk.

More than a toe in the water

For Maersk, this an important first step as it explores a range of autonomous technologies and their potential commercial and operational benefits.

“We firmly believe that advanced technologies that build on autonomous principles can help further improve safe, efficient and reliable working environments and operations across the container logistics value chain – from ports and terminals to tugs and container ships,” says Svitzer CEO, Henriette Thygesen.


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Svitzer Hermod is the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel and the result of a long collaboration between Rolls Royce and Maersk. Photo: Rolls Royce


 The project that led to Svitzer Hermod’s creation combined Rolls Royce’s experience in research and development around autonomous technology with Maersk’s knowledge of vessel operations in a partnership that allowed both companies to share knowledge and learn more about the opportunities to be gained and the challenges involved with autonomous technology in the maritime sector.

“We are in an exploratory phase,” says Michael Rodey, Senior Innovation Project Manager, Autonomy and Augmented Control in the Transport & Logistics division. “Autonomous technology has many levels. We are not interested in complete autonomy or unmanned vessels - that is not our goal. The technology along the journey is what’s of interest to us,” he says.

To get there, Rodey says the current task is to build a roadmap for autonomous technology and evaluate across the Transport & Logistics businesses what the value could be of certain technologies to vessel crews and operations in general and in terms of safety, reliability and efficiency.

Proof of concept

This month, Maersk will launch a proof of concept for the first level of autonomous technology on a container ship, namely situational awareness.

This will include the installation of a bundle of tech­nologies like lidar, advanced radar, HD cameras, infrared cameras, and screens on the bridge that together will enable the vessel to gather and interpret data on its surrounding environment to enable the crew (and the vessel) to fully understand what’s happening around the vessel.

Autonomous technology has many levels. We are not interested in complete autonomy or unmanned vessels. That is not our goal. The technology along the journey is what’s of interest to us.”

Michael Rodey, Senior Innovation Project Manager, Autonomy and Augmented Control in the Transport & Logistics division. Photo: Christina Bode
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“One example of how it would change life onboard is that it would make it possible for the crew to better evaluate their surroundings when visibility is reduced, such as at night, or in severe weather,” says Rodey.

“In addition, this information can be streamed ashore to enable remote harbour and transit pilotage to make operations more efficient. So, while we have identified various scenarios for its use, a lot of questions need answering. For example, does this technology improve overall safety? Does the crew find it valuable? Is the equipment capable of enduring extended periods at sea? We have to find out.”

Upon completion of the situational awareness testing on the container ship, the data from the situational awareness system – including recordings of all near misses and accidents – can be collected and used to help develop future collision avoidance technology that will warn crews of imminent danger, or even act autonomously.

The industry’s role

If the benefits of the technology are uncertain, the challenges are not. Speaking to a broad representation of the maritime sector at the Danish Maritime Authority’s conference on autonomy, Svitzer CEO Henriette Thygesen invited the industry to continue working together to determine the technology’s true potential.

“From testing and securing systems to determining concrete customer benefits, to building the necessary infrastructure on- and offshore, to establishing regulatory frameworks to the overall costs; we face a lot of challenges,” she said.

“At Maersk we’ve set out to explore the opportunities and overcome these challenges. We are well on our way. We have a joint goal; let’s work together to achieve it.” 

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Svitzer CEO, Henriette Thygesen: “We firmly believe that advanced technologies building on autonomous principles can help further improve safe, efficient and reliable working environments and operations across the container logistics value chain – from ports and terminals to tugs and container ships.” Photo: Christina Bode

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