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Tug Technology & Business

Tug Technology & Business

Technology to impact tug operations in 2019

Tue 01 Jan 2019 by Martyn Wingrove

Technology to impact tug operations in 2019

Tugs have become more technically advanced in 2018, built to innovative designs with more power and greener propulsion. These trends will continue into 2019, but with greater focus, higher investment and more technology innovations to come. Here are my predictions for tug technology and commercial operations for the year ahead.


Hybrid fleet and LNG take off

Despite commercial pressures on tug operators, they continue to invest in new vessels with different designs to cover the rising demand for port services and increasing bollard pull requirements to cater for ultra-large container ships.

In 2019, environmental pressures will increase at a faster rate and tug owners need to embrace this. This may not come directly from IMO and its committees, but from port and national authorities interested in reducing harbour and terminal emissions. In the US, owners have ordered tugs that comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Tier 4 requirements, either by including selective catalytic reaction units or hybrid propulsion technology.

Therefore, there will be more tugs built with hybrid propulsion to reduce marine diesel consumption and emissions and a swing towards constructing dual-fuel tugs with LNG storage capacity. Perhaps there will be tugs built with both dual-fuel main engines and hybrid propulsion and onboard energy storage.

100-tonne bollard pull stock tugs

Ultra-large container ships, new terminals and port infrastructure require more powerful tugs. Shipbuilders are constructing tugs as stock, to operate in their own fleets until they are sold to other tug owners.

In 2018, there was a trend of building more powerful tugs with bollard pulls up to 80 tonnes for stock and fleet requirements. 

It is reasonable to expect that one of the shipyards could build a stock tug with 100 tonnes of bollard pull. With that amount of power, it could be a multifunctional tug used as an oceangoing tug for project and long-distance towage. Any rebound in the offshore oil and gas sector could generate additional demand for oceangoing tugs requiring 100-tonnes of bollard pull.

Remote control becomes a commercial reality

In 2018, three groups trialled remote control technology to test methods of manoeuvring a tug from a shore centre. One test involved Svitzer, Rolls-Royce and Lloyd’s Register collaborating to remotely control harbour tug Svitzer Hermod in Copenhagen.

Another group, led by Kotug, has been controlling a training tug in the Netherlands. A third team led by Purple Water is remotely controlling Giano tug to tow barges using a remote bridge onshore. In Q3 2018, Giano was the first tug to complete a long-distance commercial tow while being operated from shore.

In 2019, there will be more demonstrations and technology developments leading to commercial operations involving tug remote control. For example, Singaporean companies, including Keppel and the port authority are planning to develop remote control for tugs and autonomous harbour vessels. This technology will eventually help the wider shipping industry develop remote control and autonomous ships.


Drones for operations and threats

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones now pose significant threats to port operations including those involving tugs. So much so that the Port of Amsterdam is conducting a four-week trial of drone detection to understand how, where and why remote controlled aerial vehicles are used within the port.

This indicates that port operators and authorities should be worried about their wider use. However, there are positive uses for UAVs in tug operations, including using a drone to deliver a messenger line from a tug to an assisted ship removing the need for the tug to sail close to the ship. A heavy duty mooring line could be attached to the messenger line that is hauled in to prepare both tug and assisted ship for the tow.

Another use for UAVs is for port security and monitoring marine operations in harbours, delivering documents or small parcels to ships, or in salvage operations to remotely monitor a casualty.

However, potential malevolent use of UAVs in ports include privacy invasion, terrorism threats, flyby hacking, stealing valuable data, breaking into insecure networks or jamming signals between shore and remotely controlled port vessels and tugs.

Connectivity delivers smart ports but also cyber threats 

Advances in satellite communications, 4G mobile phone networks and data analytics is leading to the development of smart ports incorporating better tug scheduling and management.

Singapore provides a snapshot of where this technology is heading as the port authority develops artificial intelligence and data analytics to optimise traffic management, working with Singapore Management University, Fujitsu Laboratories and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute of High Performance Computing on this project.

Computer programs will forecast congestion and potential collisions, by identifying risk hotspots and monitoring ships, before they occur. They will also predict tug requirements from ships entering Singapore's ports.

This connectivity and artificial intelligence will be used by other port and terminal operators in the future. Further developments in e-navigation, particularly in South Korea and the Baltic region where testbeds have been running, will mean port operators can prepare even further in advance for ship escort, berthing and unberthing operations.

However, with better connectivity comes cyber security threats. Ports will need to be more vigilant and not become victims of cyber threats or hackers. Tug operators will need to include cyber security for their vessels and more importantly, their shoreside operations management offices.

During one of shipping’s highest-profile cyber attacks, Maersk Group subsidiaries were directly affected by a viral infection that closed terminals and affected marine operations. In June 2017, Maersk’s terminal operator APM Terminals closed 17 terminals impacted by that infection.

There is guidance available to shipping companies and tug operators, in the Guidelines on Cyber Security Onboard Ships published by industry associations Bimco, Intertanko, Intercargo, OCIMF and the World Shipping Council.


Smart ports ultimately combine all elements of maritime including shipowners, cargo owners, port managers, tug owners and logistics providers. Technology improves a port's efficiency and reduces emissions, but tugs remain essential elements of their operation.

Tugs of the future will need to be more powerful, highly manoeuvrable, versatile and greener. They will have higher bollard pull, hybrid propulsion with energy storage and more onboard sensors and bridge equipment to allow shore managers to remotely monitor and control operations. UAVs will be on board and there will be greater levels of automation. For 2019, they will have more connectivity with additional layers of cyber security.


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