Automation and navigation technology will enable unmanned tugs for harbour and towage operations, explains editor Martyn Wingrove
Unmanned tugboats are coming to our industry and I expect the first commercial remotely controlled operations to come before 2020.
Innovative owners are looking at technology that will enable more autonomous operations on tugs. They are researching ways of sailing tugs from one port to another while resting crew, so they are fresh for harbour towage and ship manoeuvring when their tug arrives in port.
Meanwhile, manufacturers and designers are considering how to convey a mooring line from a tug to a ship through remote operations. Rolls-Royce is studying automatic mooring technology as part of its autonomous tugboat concept. This tackles one of the key elements that have been highlighted as holding back further development of unmanned tugs.
We already have the designs ready, courtesy of Robert Allan’s naval architects, and the remote control technology, thanks to technical developments by Rolls-Royce. So any development of robotics for hooking up ships to tugs or mooring vessels will be beneficial to the process of autonomous tug operations.
Rolls-Royce has come up with a concept for a robotic crane that can be used for docking and line removal without the assistance from crew or port personnel. It is yet to be tested, but is plausible.
When it comes to futuristic ideas, we need look no further that Rolls-Royce senior vice president for concepts and innovation Oskar Levander, as he expects tugs will become unmanned in the near future.
Svitzer also thinks that remote control of tugs is possible. I have been to Svitzer and Rolls-Royce’s prototype remote operating centre in Copenhagen, Denmark and seen this in action. During my trip to Turku, Finland, I witnessed Rolls-Royce’s updated version of this with added noise for sensory perception.
There are also updates to the augmented reality visualised on flat screens to provide additional information on the surrounding navigation hazards and adjacent ships for tug remote masters.
Remotely controlled tugboats would need upgraded communications networks that link to satellites and cellular networks and situational awareness systems, including LIDAR, cameras and radar. This has been tested on Svitzer Hermod, a 2016-built harbour tug that is equipped with these sensors and communications devices for remote control by a master at the Copenhagen centre.
Additional costs for installing these systems could be offset by the removal of crew accommodation and deckhouse, which would naturally be obsolete on an unmanned tugboat.
Rolls-Royce’s concept design includes these changes, additions and omissions, but does take future maintenance into consideration, as it has hatches with access to the engineroom.
However, the first commercial remote tug operations would not need to be on a newbuild based on these concepts. They could be far simpler than operating a totally new concept design.
What Svitzer appears to be contemplating is remotely controlling a tug from port-to-port, then adding a rested crew so that the tug is ready for a full day of operations. This is instead of having the crew sail the tug to a new port and having to rest them before beginning operations. And that is one of the commercial reason for the unmanned tug.
This enables owners to turn science fiction into reality – to enable unmanned tug voyages this side of the next decade. It will drive the industry into the brave new world of unmanned tugs and remote control towage.