Ship automation provides the network for measuring vessel performance, propulsion efficiency and emissions while controlling cargo and auxiliary systems
If the bridge of a vessel is its brain, then its automation system is its nervous system, carrying information between the brain and other organs – the propulsion system, cargo management system, and auxiliary systems. As data gathering and analytics further develop, bridge systems are getting smarter. However, less care is being given to the automation systems that carry signals around the ship, Høglund Marine Automation chief executive Børge Nogva explained.
This is partially because naval architects and shipyards have a limited understanding of the electronics involved and partially because they are low-cost items compared to other systems, such as cargo management or propulsion. As a result, “specifications for automation systems are not drawn up with as much detail, meaning most will settle for established package solutions, rather than bespoke automation systems more suited to their individual vessels,” Mr Nogva told Marine Electronics & Communications.
He thinks this causes overall standards of maritime automation to lag behind those of the automotive or aerospace sectors. “Frequently, users will ignore systems designed to make processes more efficient,” he continued. “Systems fail and, instead of being repaired, manual workarounds are found.”
At best, this results in lost opportunities to find efficiency savings through optimised automation. At worst, this can result in mission-critical delays. “For us, this is unacceptable. We take a ground-up approach to creating systems at the newbuild or retrofit stages,” Mr Nogva said, adding that these provide the performance and reliability ship operators need for the long term.
For each vessel project, Høglund creates a list of which hardware and software go together, which reduces headaches when it comes to maintenance or upgrades. All its systems are based on hardware that it believes will still be available in 15 years’ time so that ship operators are assured that spares and replacements will be available in the future.
“This contrasts with other approaches, which involve frequent updates to both software and hardware,” Mr Nogva explained. That approach would mean that, in the event of an upgrade or replacement of one element to the system, an entire system may need to be overhauled.
Ship automation systems are not just for supporting on-board operations, he said. “Automation systems are a potential goldmine of data to be analysed for insights and optimisation.” This can take the form of a playback capability, which uses records of up to a year of all the inputs and outputs for a system, allowing users to play back events and analyse any faults, “which is invaluable for diagnostics and bug-fixing,” he added.
Data gleaned from automation systems can be for used ship performance monitoring, combining fuel and power consumption alongside vessel data, such as average speed, distance sailed, wind speed and direction, draught and trim. It can then be used for calculating emissions information.
For vessels with conventional propulsion, it is also possible to use sensors to measure propulsion efficiency. “By measuring the shaft torque and comparing it to engine power, the system can show whether the propeller is performing optimally, or whether power is being lost to cavitation,” Mr Nogva explained. This information can be captured in the ship performance monitor and displayed on the bridge.
"This reduces the reliance on numerous systems that all need to be interfaced and maintained"
Recorded data can be used to create automatic reports showing compliance with EU’s monitoring, reporting and verification regulation requirements. GPS data, tank soundings and the dates and levels from bunkering reports can also easily be incorporated in the automation system. “This reduces the reliance on numerous systems that all need to be interfaced and maintained,” Mr Nogva said.
Automation systems create feedback loops that are essential, both for daily vessel operations and for building smarter ships and achieving data-driven optimisation. “As digitalisation accelerates in the industry, it is time for yards, owners, and designers to start paying attention to automation to ensure their vessels are ready to maximise the benefits this transformation will bring,” Mr Nogva concluded.