Demcon unmanned systems - Rotterdam Maritime Capital of Europe Credit: DEMCON unmanned systems

On Monday October 18, the Rotterdam Maritime Capital of Europe network organised as special webinar about autonomous shipping. During the fifty-minute online event Vincent Wegener (CaptainAI), Toine Cleophas (Damen Shipyards) and Rudy Negenborn (Delft University of Technology) inspired the participants with the vision and developments about this topic in the Rotterdam region. The discussion was moderated by Oscar van Veen (Port of Rotterdam).

Learn more about autonomous shipping in the Rotterdam region.

Before diving into the relevance of maritime technology and autonomous shipping itself, Oscar van Veen took the opportunity to set the scene and to introduce the industry experts.

Learn more about digitalisation in the Rotterdam region.

CaptainAI: from vision to testing in the real world

Vincent was invited to elaborate about CaptainAI, a Rotterdam based start-up and frontrunner in the development of fully autonomous shipping solutions. The idea for the company was triggered by the notion that they didn’t see any autonomous vessels in the biggest port of Europe. They were wondering why this was the case and soon were able to test and demonstrate the possibilities by installing several smart sensors on one of the water taxi’s navigating the waterways of the Rotterdam region. This led to convincing two regional investors (Post & Co an insurance company and VSTEP a company that creates maritime simulators), making it possible take it to the next level.

Eventually they were able to test aboard a vessel of the Rotterdam Port Authority that was reassigned as a floating test lab for autonomous sailing, creating the opportunity and benefits to test in real life situations as well as in VSTEP simulators. Now, after three years they have access to multiple vessels, including an inland navigation vessel. The main focus lies on deep learning techniques such as object detection and avoidance based on bigdata and training their algorithms on those datasets. Having access to vast amounts of real-life data and being able to annotate the data is key to create the artificial intelligence that is needed for safe and reliable autonomous sailing.

Favorable rules and regulations

According to Vincent regulatory issues are a bigger challenge to tackle then is the case for technological realisation. Therefore, he calls for wide support to create supportive regulatory conditions, to allow autonomous ships to sail open waters. In this area he believes that the Port of Rotterdam Authority could take the lead and create exemptions for commercially operated autonomous vessels in the port.

Toine Cleophas acknowledges the concerns and adds that Netherlands Maritime Technology (NMT), the Dutch trade association for shipbuilding and the maritime supply industry, are taking the lead to arrange meetings between the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, yards, operators, and system providers. He is happy to notice that there is a good balance between the technological push, direct adoption by operators and regulatory bodies who are supportive and following developments. A good example is the Netherlands Forum for Smart Shipping (SMASH!). SMASH!  was started by Rijkswaterstaat (the dedicated executive agency of the ministry that is responsible for the roads and waterways) but now organized and coordinated by NMT. According to Toine, the SMASH! project is an important way to create a solution in this area because it is a true cooperation between the market and regulatory bodies.

Damen Shipyards: from monitoring to gaining insights to automated functionalities

Next Toine explains how Damen Shipyards went from monitoring, to gaining insights and ultimately towards automated functionality.  When Damen Shipyards was asked by clients to prepare vessels for remote monitoring, they invested in solutions to enable this. Soon they realised that once you start monitoring you learn how to listen to a vessel. Opening the door for improvements. So, when data owners started to share data, the team was able to create insights. Which, after being proven trustworthy, lead to possible implementation of automated functionality.

After this brief introduction, Toine invited Vincent to share his thoughts about which automated functionalities he believes will become commercially viable first. According to Vincent, these will be systems that improve situational awareness and soon after some sort of ‘path planner’ with a similar reliability and user friendliness like Google Maps. This is where opportunities for cooperation and mutual prosperity arise. Damen is eager to adopt these kinds of systems because there is a market for it. They are looking for ways to integrate such technologies as effective and efficient as possible in new buildings. When this is done successfully it creates volume which helps to make solutions and product such as being developed by CaptainAI more profitable.

Toine is quick to add that he isn’t looking for a single solution delivered by one large company. Instead, they would like to involve the entire regional ecosystem to work together on the integration of various solutions. This keeps everyone effective and focussed on the challenge that lies ahead. According to Toine the Rotterdam region is very good in these kinds of collaborations. Ultimately this creates sustainable competitive advantage for everyone involved.

What if ships could talk?

Rudy Negenborn can directly relate to what Toine described. When talking about autonomous ships with a high level of digitisation and protocols, questions arise about how ships will communicate with each other. How will they communicate with humans and how will humans be able to talk with the ships? According to him this is an important ‘open’ challenge. At the moment, most of the developments can be found in automating individual ships. But it won’t be about a single vessel moving around at open sea. Instead, it will be about many ships in narrow and constraint areas such as ports or inland waterways. That must deal with various kinds of supporting systems or infrastructure. It is all about how these ships should interact with each other, with non-autonomous vessels or even with ‘half-breds’.

Therefore, the primary focus of the research department at the Delft University of Technology is on fleet perspective instead of individual vessels. Starting with traditional equations of what the interaction should look like, they moved to high-level simulation models. By now they are testing these concepts in a physical lab environment with about twenty small scale vessels, making it possible to monitor closely and experiment in a safe environment. Experiments, such as manoeuvring in crowded areas or head on situations, are important for getting insight in how autonomous systems will make sure to prevent collisions. These insights are used to improve theory and algorithms.

Cooperation as an asset

In order to make autonomous sailing a reality, it is important to involve relevant decision makers and stakeholders along the way. According to Rudy the industry should not wait with involving them until technical solutions are available. Fortunately, this is already the case. Think about the NOVIMOVE project about smart and sustainable transport over water along the Rhine Alpine corridor from Rotterdam to the Alps in Switzerland. In this project they look at new ship designs, real time smart navigation systems and make a link with the logistics level.

The interesting part is that this is not only an academic exercise, but already involves port authorities, logistics service providers and ship builders in the stakeholder’s community for example, who are all part of the feedback loop. Rudy considers the presence of all these stakeholders and ecosystem in the Rotterdam region as a true asset making such developments possible.

René Beute

René Beute
Investment manager
Deal Drecht Cities

+31 (0)6 155 879 36

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René Beute