Sharing data for safer operation

Traditionally navigation is something that only takes place onboard the ship with the shore office having almost no practical input beyond ensuring the ship has on board the necessary equipment, charts and publications. In some cases there may also be company procedures that permit only certain routes and practices to be used. However, as broadband availability grows and modern navigation systems are installed on ships, the possibility of monitoring and sharing the burden of navigating is opening up.

Currently the only mandatory monitoring of a ship’s position and its sailing performance is achieved by the noon reports and the vessel’s use of AIS. The former is given only to the owner and although AIS was initially developed as a collision avoidance aid, it was very soon appropriated for security surveillance monitoring of the position and basic information about the vessel’s voyage. AIS is also the only current e-navigation tool that shares information with other vessels. As a security measure AIS has one very obvious limitation – if on board a vessel or craft with criminal intentions – it can merely be turned off leaving watchers unaware of its movements.

Shipowners are not though prevented from voluntarily using solutions that suit their operating strategy. Among the first to be developed were performance monitoring tools that were mostly aimed at fuel saving but which do require some navigational information to function. Many of these tools can share information with the shore office allowing the owner a view of individual vessel and fleet wide performance.

NAVTOR’s NavTracker is not a performance monitoring tool but it does keep track of and manage the ENC usage and updating and can also generate noon reports. It also allows an operator a fleetwide view of vessels’ positions and real time monitoring of vessel movements. The information can be shared and accessed by authorised shore staff at any time which is always useful to company superintendents and emergency response team members.

Safe navigation of the vessel is at the heart of e-navigation and while some data sharing with the shore office is a useful extra benefit, it is the wider possibilities of dating sharing with third parties that are seen as the goals which are being focussed upon to extract even more from the concept. This can take numerous forms some of which are more controversial than others.

There have been several projects undertaken on national and regional scales that have sought to test some of the ideas that have been seen as possible advantages. Many – but not all – of these projects have been funded in full or part by the EU. They include the Mona Lisa 1 and 2 projects, ACCSEAS, EfficienSea 1 and 2 and STM all looking at e-navigation involving conventional ships and the Enable-S3 project which is more directed at autonomous ships. NAVTOR has been involved in some of these and has a major role in the Enable-S3 project.

In several of the projects the focus has been on managing sea traffic over a wide area for reasons of safety and to reduce environmental impact of shipping. Unlike aviation where air traffic control is practised over vast areas, maritime activity is normally controlled on a much smaller scale.

It could be argued that the speed of aircraft makes management over a wide area more necessary than for ships which rarely move at speeds above 20 knots and mostly at just over half of that. On the other hand, ships react less quickly than aircraft, can only move in two dimensions and are faced with physical objects and water depths which further restrict ability to manoeuvre.

Regardless of the arguments, so long as there is a desire by nations and bodies such as the EU for more control over shipping movements and if regulations are developed ship operators will be obliged to comply.

In terms of safety, the advantage of e-navigation is that much more information can be shared directly between ships than is possible to glean from radar or AIS signals. As an example, passage plans could be exchanged, and a possible hazardous situation identified well in advance allowing appropriate action to be taken at an early stage. Although this happens on a very localised level already where VTS services are established, route sharing can help anticipate hazards outside of VTS zones.

Taking this a step further, the use of simulators and AI could rapidly explore multiple scenarios where to avoid a future close contact situation a ship deviates from its passage plan or alters speed but this action brings it into another hazardous situation with other vessels. These are developments for the future but with the groundwork already being laid by the projects underway. A logical next step – and one that would be necessary – is to expand the concept to autonomous ships.

Autonomous operation of some vessels has already taken place, albeit usually with a crew on board who can take over operation if necessary. There has been quite fierce competition to bring autonomous vessels to reality and in regular service. And unless those projects are abandoned or postponed that is something that will happen in the very near future.

If an autonomous vessel is being controlled by a person ashore as has been the case in most of the trials to date, the chief concern is that the link with the ship can be maintained. However, at some point it should be anticipated that the goal is for the ship to operate completely autonomously and that will involve development of algorithms and software for the ship to communicate with other manned and unmanned vessels and to take decisions in emergencies or in case of equipment malfunctions.

One of the declared goals of many of the projects is to manage shipping movements so that emissions can be reduced by ensuring optimum arrival and departure times to suit traffic levels. This is a prospect that is quite contentious and which has strong arguments put forward by both sides. Fixed schedules are already quite common in the container and cruise sectors although generally only strictly adhered to by cruise ships as the reliability of container arrivals is frequently below 80%.

There are good reasons for this as the timing between different vessels on the line often need to be adjusted to ensure that one ships is not sailing with minimal cargo while another is overbooked. In addition, the economics of ship operation is such that sometimes decisions are made to preserve profits rather than reduce pollution. This has been very much in evidence this year when several containership operators and some tanker owners too have decided to sail around the Cape of Good Hope rather than use Suez canal because the cost of bunkers is low, the Suez Canal charges are high and the longer voyage is therefore much cheaper.

The argument for just in time and managed arrivals is even loss popular in the dry cargo spot markets because of the commercial relationships between vessel and cargo owners. Changing this will require the co-operation of cargo interests as well as vessel owners not least because the contract of carriage terms are dictated by charterers in most trades. It should also not be forgotten that sailing at a higher speed to reach a port early is often the only way a shipowner can gain the necessary time to carry out essential work on the ship and its machinery.

This article is the fifth in a short series on the intriguing topic of e-navigation the others can be found here, here, here and here.

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