Marine technology thrives on open dialogue with class

ABB and the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) collaborate towards the common goal of accomodating maritime regulations and the recent developments in marine technologies.

Frequency, intensity and constructive feedback are changing the shape of the conversations between technology providers and classification societies as two key maritime stakeholders look to find the most effective routes to decarbonization, digitalization and autonomous technologies.

In recent years, advances in technology have significantly outpaced the development of regulations shipping relies on to protect safety, security, and the environment. While regulators work continuously to close the gap, suppliers and class have increasingly needed to approve technology developments on an ‘in principle’ basis because global maritime rules are lacking or incomplete.

Collaboration has been both essential and the most effective way to lay the groundwork for progress.

Kalevi Tervo, Global Program Manager, ABB Marine & Ports, has led the division‘s strategic development covering digitalization, ship control and autonomous vessels for more than a decade. With technology moving relentlessly forward, he describes the relationship between the technology provider and class has changed significantly over the last years.

“We have been working with class on many items where the technology is groundbreaking – for example, with regard to decarbonization, digitalization and autonomous ships – and where maritime regulations don’t currently exist. Collaboration has been both essential and the most effective way to lay the groundwork for progress.”

Concept illustration of an autonomous ferry. Image credit: ABB
Concept illustration of an autonomous ferry. Image credit: ABB

Touchpoints connecting ABB Marine & Ports with ABS extend from bridge to propeller, taking in ship power, control and distribution, Azipod® propulsion and an array of advisory software, and beyond, to shore power.

Autonomous action

Plenty of opportunities exist for advancing technologies to drive a new type of relationship, but accelerating automation is exerting the most intense pressure for greater collaboration on both sides, says Tervo.

Chih Wei Lui, Technology Manager, ABS, leads autonomous ship developments at the class society and was part of the International Maritime Organization regulatory scoping exercise on MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship).

Lui comments: “When owners go to yards today, they want an idea of what they can expect for the ship they are ordering down the road. One example is future fuel oil consumption and expected CII performance. However, the rules on autonomous ships cut to the very core of not only equipment functionality, but how it is used. That has profound consequences for the relationship between makers and class.”

Recent projects involving ABB and ABS have included the harbor tug Maju 510, which last year became the first vessel to receive Autonomous and Remote-Control Navigation Notations from ABS, and the first Singapore-flagged vessel to receive Smart (Autonomous) Notation from MPA. The Keppel Offshore & Marine (Keppel O&M) project saw a successful demonstration of automated situational awareness, collision avoidance, and maneuvering using ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision and Marine Pilot Control.

ABB and ABS agree that a higher level of automation could help most – if not all – vessels to improve safety, efficiency and sustainability in operations, with optimized maneuvering helping to prevent accidents, enhance productivity and reduce fuel consumption.

Critical MASS

For regulators, though, levels of autonomy in ship operation change the relationship between the seafarer and the ship in ways that still need to be fully defined at IMO. The development of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) rules on a goal-based rather than a prescriptive basis is therefore pivotal to their ability to respond to a changing world later on, rather than being framed in terms that freeze technology at a moment in regulatory time.

“Maritime safety is the goal for developing rules for MASS that is common to all stakeholders,” Lui says. “However, these new technologies involve wholesale change, not just for design but for the way ships can be operated.”

ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control – Exploration cruise. Image credit: ABB
ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control – Exploration cruise. Image credit: ABB

Where internationally agreed maritime rules do not yet exist, working towards formal certification of technologies like ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot calls for new levels of transparency between class and technology developers, and a dialogue that goes far beyond the novel concept approvals class has offered up to now.

Last year ABB and ABS organized two workshops – one in Houston and one in Helsinki – focusing on autonomous ships, associated technologies and provisions for remote control. “These were focal points for what has become a continuous discussion, where ABS gains better understanding of the technology and provides feedback in a collaborative way,” says Lui.

“It's a different level of dialogue now, since both ABB and ABS have gained experience from multiple ship automation and autonomous ship projects. Ultimately, these learnings can benefit the entire industry,” comments Tervo.

Continuous discussion between ABB and ABS is also getting to the heart of prevailing industry concerns on the substance of regulations for the MASS future.

Ship operating principles

“In conventional operations, everything – including the rules – revolves around the human as the agent responsible for different subsystems,” observes Lui. “It all works based on humans looking out the window or referring to screens and taking decisions based on what they observe. However, while training standards are exact, the individual will always be a variable.”

Introducing autonomous technology requires a different approach, he adds. Rulemaking is straightforward from the point of view of equipment functionality, but that is not the same as developing safe procedures on decision-making for real maritime operations.


“As technology developers, we are increasingly working more closely with class to secure a mutual understanding of how the technology will be used and to work towards a way to certify it for commercial use,” says Tervo. “Class can offer insights on the regulatory landscape based on their experiences across the whole maritime industry globally, while we can offer guidance on how operations might be adjusted to optimize use of the technology. With the framework for MASS at an early stage, operational definitions and equipment functionality are in a kind of dialogue that is informing the iterative regulatory process.”

New applications of autonomous ship technology are already enhancing safety as part of conventional ship operations. Last year, for example, Wonder of the Seas set sail as the first ship in the world to feature ABB Ability™ Marine Braking Assistance. At the push of a button, the new digital solution initiates an automated braking sequence, optimizing the angles and power of all the Azipod® propulsion units based on vessel position, heading and speed to maximize braking efficiency. This gives the operators time to attend to other urgent matters while retaining control over steering.

Other ABB projects underway cover a proposal for a ‘Bridge 0’ conditionally and periodically unattended bridge, while separate trials focus on ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot functionality to perform as an ‘electronic lookout’ to support greater maritime safety.


“Today we are continuously in dialogue with our class partners on our research projects relating to the autonomous ship, to leverage their knowledge. We can always call on them for informal but invaluable peer review,” says Tervo.

“What’s important is that the industry moves away from the isolated product-driven approach and towards software and data-defined functionalities. We already know that there will be new software functions during the lifetime of the ship that existing regulations and procedures won’t be able to handle. We need rules which frame the ship as a system that can evolve during its lifetime. Collaboration with class now is imperative.”

The relationship between ABS and ABB is evolving.

Remote concerns

Lui says “frank discussions” have taken place between ABB and ABS on concept of the Digital Control Center, where key ship functionality can be controlled from afar.

“That is an example of how a new holistic approach can benefit operating rules, and the effective use and development of technology,” comments Tervo. “In the digital and connected world, it is not relevant whether the technology user is located on the bridge or in a remote center. But it is relevant that documentation on risk assessments is in line with the expectations of customers and flag states.”

“The relationship between ABS and ABB is also evolving,” adds Lui. “It’s no longer about ABB submitting user manuals to us for class recognition. Even on the technology itself, there’s a more extensive engagement, where we work with ABB to ensure our class recognition documentation fits the real purpose of the product throughout, rather than only engineering characteristics.”

And while projects relating to autonomous ship technology may command the highest profile, the new type of relationship that is being established between ABS and ABB is being replicated in a growing number of areas, Lui adds, above and below the waterline.

“ABB has the whole full suite of systems for ships and this type of collaboration is fruitful at all levels. My colleagues across ABS are engaging with their ABB counterparts on the same basis, on everything from motors and thrusters to power networks, control systems and maintenance standards – not to mention underwater noise."

“We see it as a holistic engagement that is not limited to one technology group or part of our organizations but works towards viewing the entire vessel as a system of systems. In some ways, it is a change that is necessary to support integrated maritime digitalization."


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