Safe Autonomy at Sea

In the past, manned ships headed out to sea to perform survey work or collect data in the name of research—a dangerous, often unpleasant job that kept crew members away from home for days or even weeks at a time. As it’s becoming more difficult and expensive to recruit professionals with the specialised skills needed to perform various sea-based work, organisations who must gather information at sea are turning to an alternative solution: operating uncrewed marine vessels remotely, with the goal of one day reaching full autonomy.

These teams are staying onshore to monitor vessels from a location where they can keep eyes on them, or from an office that could be anywhere in the world. Instead of just crewing one ship, they’re operating multiple, increasing work efficiency and lowering operational costs. Along with surveying and research instruments, the ships are equipped with technologies that provide positioning data in real-time, allowing remote crews to quickly make critical decisions as the vessels navigate. 

As this new innovative marine market segment grows, operators still rely on the same precise, robust positioning technologies they did when the vessels were entirely manned— technologies that VERIPOS is known for providing. The differences between manned and unmanned vessels are the ability to connect to positioning systems remotely and the communication structure required to get the data where it needs to go, said Richard Turner, vice president of marine operations at Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division. The communication element is being continuously improved and will one day enable completely autonomous missions. 

VERIPOS is stepping up as a leader in this segment, a natural progression from the company’s already strong presence in the manned marine arena by providing the tools and guidance needed for safe autonomy at sea. 

“Our technology is core to that position, that assured PNT [positioning, navigation and timing],” said David Russell, marine segment portfolio manager at Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division. “When you start to remove people from the vessel, you need to know what’s going on with the vessel and if there are any issues. You need to know what’s going on from a situational point of view.”

Where we are today

Remote operations are becoming more common, with crew members monitoring vessels from a lake or harbour just off the beach, keeping eyes on them as they work, Russell said. Other use cases require over-the-horizon operation, where the crew doesn’t have visibility of the vessel. The oil and gas industry, for example, is employing this type of application for offshore survey work, allowing engineers to see and analyse videos from underwater vehicles in real-time. 

Small vessels are also being sent offshore for data harvesting to monitor seabed infrastructure, Russell said. Such vessels can be sent out every month, quickly collect data, send it to the crew and then return to shore.

While the next step is for vessels to perform these tasks with no human oversight, getting there might take some time. Today, there’s a legal requirement for someone to maintain a watch, whether that someone is on board or monitoring a video camera feed from the office.

“Autonomy is sending the vessel off and away it goes to perform its mission and deal with obstacles it encounters on its own, following the maritime rules of the road,” Turner said. “This is difficult and really at the far end of the spectrum. Remote is the first step, where everything is still controlled, watched and monitored as if you had people on board.”

The use cases

Surveying is one of the most common applications for remotely operated vessels, Turner said, with the ships carrying sonar systems to map and monitor the seabed. This takes a unique skillset and one that’s in short supply. Sending out uncrewed vessels makes it possible to collect more data at a lower cost, creating a huge opportunity for these companies.

“We don’t have a lot of data from the disparate, deep parts of the ocean, but collecting it is a perfect job for remotely operated research vessels,” said Brett Phaneuf, founder and chief executive of Submergence Group. These vessels make it possible to gather more data across larger areas, and to do so safely.

Most of the information we have today, he said, is from satellites as well as cruise ships and commercial vessels that sometimes carry research instruments to collect data as they travel. Leveraging automated systems to study those far away areas, much like what’s been done in space for years, will provide invaluable insights into the vastly unexplored marine environment. The information gathered can be used to better understand the dynamics and health of our oceans, and allow researchers to better allocate resources to target where to send their manned ships to take a closer look.

Phaneuf sees unmanned survey systems working with clusters of satellites, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy for sampling.

“A satellite might see an odd ocean colour and then send ship seven to take a sample without a person having to cast it,” he said. “The system would alert a human that it took samples of something that doesn’t conform to what we know about this part of the ocean. I see that happening in the next five to ten years.”

And it doesn’t have to be ships, Phaneuf said. Gliders that drift with the current and provide data when they surface also can be deployed from an uncrewed vessel to gather information.

“Instead of spending $40,000 to $50,000 [USD] a day to drop a glider from a manned vessel or piggyback on a cruise ship,” he said, “you can spend a few thousand and have an autonomous ship drop the glider, turn around and come back to you.”

Underwater autonomous vehicles can get close to the seabed to collect imagery and data, but it’s critical for everything gathered to be georeferenced, Russell said. Before these systems are submerged, GNSS systems and inertial measurement units (IMUs) using software like deeply coupled SPAN GNSS+INS technology must be integrated to aid with navigation once they’re subsea.

There are military uses as well, with the defence market “pushing ahead much faster with autonomy but also limiting what that means because it needs to be explainable,” Phaneuf said. Putting these vessels into action to make decisions and interact with troops in chaotic situations is complex, but countermine warfare and surveying for mines have emerged as strong use cases.

As far as the commercial world, the use of marine autonomy is still a bit all over the place, Phaneuf said, but he expects that to change over the next decade.

“It hasn’t gelled yet in terms of what will bring a high ROI [return on investment] in the commercial sector,” Phaneuf said. “But it’s clear what the benefit is in research and defence. Those areas will drive the development of applications and inform how the wider commercial market takes it up.”

The technology behind the vessels

VERIPOS provides the technology required to safely operate uncrewed vessels at sea, leveraging many of the same positioning sensors customers have used on manned platforms for years.

Many manned vessels, like an oil and gas ship drilling on a well, must be dynamically positioned, Turner said. Over the years, these vessels have relied on GNSS position sensors from VERIPOS to hold on location. The same requirement for absolute position reliability also exists for unmanned vessels. That absolute position, that single truth that VERIPOS provides, is particularly critical at sea, Turner said. Unlike on the roadways, there are no lane markings to follow or infrastructure to communicate within a marine environment. Uncrewed vessels need to know where they are at all times to stay in the appropriate sea channel and avoid collisions, and through its receivers, IMUs, anti-jam antennas and correction services, VERIPOS provides that information.

The company’s SPAN GNSS+INS technology deeply couples GNSS and inertial measurements for positioning resiliency. It is being deployed on these vessels to provide the highly precise positioning required for safe operations. At least two receivers are placed on every vessel for redundancy.

“Our GNSS technology will tell you where you are to help you position or navigate, that’s the fundamental thing we do,” Russell said. “We can then add additional components to ensure you have the right situational awareness. We have anti-jam capability through GAJT [GPS anti-jam technology] and our SPAN receivers deliver the attitude information important for marine vessels.”

VERIPOS has a long history of providing certified marine equipment, Turner said, and have offered GNSS correction services to marine users since the 1980s. With more than 80 reference stations around the world and a variety of algorithms and datasets to draw from, PPP correction services from VERIPOS provide layers of redundancy for survey and dynamic positioning (DP) users.

Correction services help minimize the error budget of the GNSS antenna while also offering an integrity check, Russell said. Through this quality control, questionable positioning data can be rejected.

Positioning systems are integrated with radars and other instruments and used as part of data acquisition, Russell said, deriving a more accurate map of the seabed for construction projects, for example.

Quantum visualisation software provides another layer of quality control allowing users to monitor the satellite tracking, corrections and accuracy of their position.

Ship at sea at sunset

“You can see how your position is performing on the vessel itself from the beach,” Turner said. “It helps reinforce the reliability of your position to make sure you have the required accuracy for what you’re doing. The most recent version of the software has been improved for remote operations, so it can be operated from the shore and monitored as if it were on the boat itself.”

VERIPOS positioning technologies are being deployed on a variety of uncrewed marine vessels, including drone platforms that are taking on mapping missions all over the world, remote surveying applications for oil and gas majors and the Mayflower Autonomous Ship that Phaneuf is behind. Through this project, the team set out to recreate the original Mayflower’s journey from the United Kingdom to the United States of America, with the modern version travelling autonomously and then transitioning to a research platform that gathers data to learn more about the ocean and climate change.

“The most critical data you can get is where you are, where you’re going and how fast you’re going there,” Phaneuf said. “With the VERIPOS units we were never in doubt about where we were headed or the attitude of the [autonomous] vessel. Everything is tied to that system. We knew we needed a reliable, high accuracy, low failure rate to go across the ocean autonomously, and it wasn’t hard to get to VERIPOS from that set of criteria.”

Support and maintenance

As researchers and commercial users move to remote and eventually autonomous operations, they’re going to need guidance. Partnering with a trusted leader is paramount.

VERIPOS provides the level of customer service and support required. The team can remotely connect to systems and monitor them, helping customers solve any issues that arise, Turner said.

The marine environment is harsh, so vessel components and the equipment used for navigation will degrade over time, Russell said. It’s critical for users to quickly determine what’s wrong with the system, and that’s where VERIPOS expertise comes in. “When you put equipment on a boat, it goes out for many years, so it’s not unusual to have one of our receivers on a vessel for a decade or more,” Turner said. “That reliability is a huge part of what we offer and why people partner with us. They count on us to reduce outages and interruptions as much as possible.”

That’s certainly the case with Phaneuf’s team.

“VERIPOS was so helpful and interested in what we were doing, we knew we wanted to use their gear. We didn’t look anywhere else because we knew we had the best already,” Phaneuf said. “They provided all the data we needed and constant feedback and consulting in terms of what systems and precision we needed and how to integrate everything on the ship.”

Safety critical and legal considerations

Two of the biggest barriers to routine autonomous operations are questions over vessel safety-critical certification and legal requirements. 

With autonomous vehicles, whether operating on roadways or in the water, it’s important to get to a place where the positioning equipment on board is certifiable, Turner said, so the safety of the position is almost guaranteed.

The marine industry historically has classification societies that certify systems, Turner said, and they’re looking at autonomous and remotely operated vessels to begin to set out standards. Much of the safety critical work being done through Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division will transfer over to marine.

“The way we deliver our corrections or software or hardware will be very similar across all types of vehicles, but there are different sets of certifying bodies and standards being used [in marine], so the certifications will come from different places,” Turner said. “We’re tracking it very closely, so we’re talking frequently with Coast Guards and classification societies.”

Then there’s the legal element. Maritime rules date back hundreds of years, Turner said, and need to be rethought to cover these vessels. Add in the fact laws are different from country to country and the way forward becomes even murkier. Conflicting regulations makes it difficult to test the technology and to set standards for how autonomous vessels should interact with other vessels while at sea.

“There aren’t any real rules on this,” Phaneuf said. “Does the vessel have to be registered, does it have to conform to ship building rules even though nobody will be on it, do you need the same level of engineering in terms of things like fire suppression? We need to be pragmatic.”

Other challenges

One of the biggest challenges for these vessels is communication, Turner said. Unlike land vehicles, they’re not surrounded by 5G networks and infrastructure they can communicate with as they travel. Communication with the onshore crew becomes more difficult the further away the ship travels.

The lack of lanes and infrastructure also make precise positioning all the more critical to knowing exactly where you are and what’s happening around you.

“You have to take into account what’s going on from a weather perspective; there could be a storm you need to navigate around because it could cause issues with the vessel,” Russell said. “You also have to be aware of other vessels in the vicinity. That’s not a problem in the middle of the ocean, but when you’re in ports and harbours and congested waterways you need to know what’s going on. You need to make sure you’re not being jammed or spoofed and that your position is reliable. You need to interface with other sensors like radar systems and chart systems.”

It’s important to remember the sea is a hostile environment and people operating manned vessels may make poor decisions, Phaneuf said. Remotely operated and eventually autonomous vessels must co-exist with manned vessels at sea, a complex challenge.

Position is also critical during a breakdown, Russell said. An autonomous road vehicle can just pull off to the side and wait for a tow. It could take days for a rescue vessel to reach an uncrewed ship at sea that may drift from its reported location.

Looking ahead

Use cases are continuing to evolve as more people start to see the benefits of putting vessels out to sea with no crew on board. Just about every marine survey company has some sort of unmanned vessel, Turner said, with the move toward remote operations and autonomy beginning to accelerate.

Industries like oil and gas are also pushing for autonomy as they see the efficiencies and reduced costs it provides, Russell said. Those who don’t follow suit, regardless of the industry, will fall behind; competitors will be able to perform the same jobs safer and more efficiently.

Companies are starting to build fleets of unmanned vessels, Turner said, and will need to manage multiple ships and receivers at the same time and to handle maintenance remotely, a transition from how things are done today. But the biggest hurdles that remain to realising an autonomous future in marine are the legal and certification challenges shaping the standards that will guide technology innovators in developing these systems.

Central to it all is the reliable, accurate positioning piece, which VERIPOS already provides. “The capability is there. The sensors are there and the compute power is there,” Phaneuf said. “Now, it’s the integration of all those things and building experience through actual operation at sea.”

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