Norwegian ferry is first to demonstrate autonomous operation

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 30 November 2018


Hands-free ferry operating was successfully demonstrated to the Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA) in November during full three-port rotations on the 85m Norwegian car ferry Folgefonn. The photograph at the head of this item was taken by Wärtsilä during the trials and shows the ferry’s captain demonstrating that his hands are not on the controls.

It is operated by the Norwegian coastal operator Norled on a short route that links three island ports on Norway’s west coast – Jektevik on Stord, Hodnanes on Tysnes and Nord Huglo on Huglo. Earlier this year the ship was fitted with auto-docking equipment provided by Wärtsilä and initial tests were conducted at that time but the demonstrations conducted over three days during the week of 12-16 November represent “a massive amazing achievement for us,” said Matteo Natali, Wärtsilä’s general manager for digital business incubation.

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He was speaking this week (28 November) during a briefing in Portsmouth, UK, at the headquarters of Transas Marine, which Wärtsilä acquired in May and formally changed its name to Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions on Monday (26 November; see below).

During the demonstration, the ferry manoeuvred out of each port, sailed to the next and docked without any human intervention, he said. “You may have heard a lot about autonomous operations … but this is the first time it was done for real,” he said. “This was a real test and it worked perfectly,” he said.

He told ShipInsight that the ship does not operate in this way in service and could not operate fully autonomously as the system does not yet include collision-avoidance. However, Sigbjørn Myrvang, technical manager at Norled, does not plan to operate the ship autonomously and anticipates that the ship will eventually use the system regularly. A statement released by Wärtsilä to coincide with the briefing quoted him as predicting that “a fully autonomous dock-to-dock solution will provide us with considerable value-adding benefits in terms of better efficiency, greater safety, lower fuel consumption and, therefore, reduced exhaust emissions.”

He sees Wärtsilä’s solution as being “a key support to the crew, enabling them to operate the vessel as effectively as possible.” It is an approach that Wärtsilä supports. Mr Natali had earlier told the briefing that Wärtsilä’s focus is on ‘smart’ ships, which are not necessarily autonomous. “We don’t believe that to make a vessel more efficient, more sustainable and more reliable we should remove people,” he said. Instead, “we believe we should empower people with digital technology to improve their situational awareness and improve their decision making.”

Wärtsilä’s statement included remarks by Joonas Makkonen, vice president of Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions, who said that this month’s demonstration represented “a huge step forward in validating automated shipping solutions, and an important progression within our Smart Marine programme.” He believes that Wärtsilä “leads the way in developing the ‘intelligent’ products and systems needed to move the marine industry towards a new era of super-high efficiency, safety, and environmental sustainability.”

During the voyages, once the ferry’s master had selected the next destination berth, the operation was started by selecting “Sail” from the system’s control panel, which authorised the autonomous controller – which is based on Wärtsilä’s existing Dynamic Positioning system – to take control of the vessel. Its navigation was defined by a series of tracks and waypoints while its speed, position and heading followed the pre-defined track. GNSS is used as the primary sensor, while a Wärtsilä Guidance Marine CyScan AS was tested as a secondary position sensor for the approach to the berth.

Wärtsilä’s statement also quoted Nils Haktor Bua, Project Manager at the NMA, who confirmed that the tests had been the first full-scale demonstration towards an autonomous operation of a vessel that the organisation had seen. “It was, to say the least, very impressive,” he said. “I am impressed by how stable the system already is at this stage.” He believes that such technology can eventually increase safety and overall efficiency of docking and undocking operations for ships and acknowledged that further development work was going on.

At Jektevik, a Cavotec vacuum mooring system secures the vessel automatically while a Wärtsilä wireless inductive battery charging system transfers energy to the ship’s batteries at a rate of up to 2MW over a distance of 0.5m. The ship is also equipped with hybrid propulsion using a Corvus energy storage system and is capable of fully-electric operation.

Innovation Norway, an investment fund, provided grants to both Wärtsilä and Norled for the testing of the auto-docking technology.

Wärtsilä rationalises its technology

Transas Marine’s renaming to Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions marks its formal arrival into the Wärtsilä Voyage family of product lines. But since its acquisition in May 2018, its managers have been involved in discussions exploring how the various companies that Wärtsilä has acquired in recent years can integrate their various technologies.

Speaking exclusively to ShipInsight, Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions academy director Graham Wagstaff said that a number of project groups are “taking the strengths and joining them together and getting rid of the weaknesses.”

As an example, he cited the energy management specialist Eniram, which Wärtsilä acquired in June 2016. Wärtsilä was developing its own fuel efficiency program and the two products took different approaches to their algorithms. Eniram’s is based around hydrodynamics more than navigational parameters, “whereas ours was almost the other way round.”

Products will be tested using the former Transas simulators at the Portsmouth-based academy. “We’ll be doing an awful lot of R&D here,” he said.

Another corporate development, which will come into effect on 1 January 2019, will see Wärtsilä reorganised from three business areas to two. Its present Energy Solutions, Marine Solutions and Services will become simply ‘Marine’ and ‘Energy’ business areas.

Addressing the Portsmouth briefing, Mr Natali said that this will “eliminate the line between newbuildings and lifecycle.” Each “will take care of the customer from the very first concept development during newbuilding all the way until the vessel is scrapped,” he said. This will “enable us to build much stronger partnerships with our customers,” he said.

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