Making history in Helsinki

ABB has enabled a groundbreaking remote control trial of a passenger ferry using off-the-shelf technology that can be fitted to virtually any sailing vessel.

The world’s first remote control trial of an existing passenger ferry is about to start, and the atmosphere in the onshore control room is tense, but optimistic.

The room is quiet except for the radio exchange between the ship’s bridge and the onshore crew.

On board the passenger ferry Suomenlinna II in Helsinki harbor, the captain moves the vessel through its first set of scheduled maneuvers, then flips the switch to hand over control of the vessel to his onshore colleague.

In the control room, all eyes are on the captain and his support crew as they begin to navigate the vessel from a downtown office building. They perform the same sequence of maneuvers without fault, and history has been made in Helsinki.

A milestone is reached

Present in the control room are several of the ABB Marine & Ports management team, including Managing Director Juha Koskela, who shared this statement following the successful completion of the test: “Today has been an exciting day. This remote control ferry demonstration is a significant milestone in the development of more autonomous shipping systems.”

For this demonstration, Koskela explains that ABB combined three of their existing solutions: ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision, providing situational awareness; ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control, helping the captain to navigate the ship; and remote connectivity, allowing for shore piloting of the vessel. “Autonomous does not mean unmanned,” he points out. “Human remote control and supervision are required in order to allow ships to operate more autonomously, and these ABB systems make that possible.”

Electric, digital and connected technologies are the key enablers in the development of more autonomous ships, Koskela continues. “The electric ship is simpler, and requires less intervention and maintenance. In an electric powered ship, functionality is enabled by digital solutions, making connectivity and development of more intelligent control systems easier.”

The captain’s eyes and ears

The ice-class passenger ferry Suomenlinna II was retrofitted with ABB’s new dynamic positioning system ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control in 2018, and with the ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision situational awareness solution in 2017.

Mikko Lepistö, who heads up digital solutions in ABB Marine & Ports, explains what the technology means in practice: “Today in the remote control trial we managed to replicate the eyes and ears of the captain on board, allowing the captain here in the control room to have the same situational awareness as on board.”

He points out another feature of the technology: “The remarkable thing about this remote control trial is that we used our existing products to achieve something completely new. ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision and ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control, as well as our connectivity solutions, are available off the shelf in the commercial market and can be retrofitted to any commercial ship. Basically, we can repeat what we did today on any vessel. This means that a significant step on the road to autonomy is now available for virtually all ships sailing today.”

In addition come the operational benefits, Lepistö says. “The use of our technology on board will improve the performance of the crew operating the vessel. More than creating improved situational awareness, it can also enable the ship to sail more safely and more efficiently. The crew will no longer experience blind spots. ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control can provide more accurate motion and movement information than could be created in the past. On shore, the technology can be used to monitor operations and provide support the crew in case they have an issue.”

A control room with a view

Lasse Heinonen, the onshore captain for the remote trial and key consultant in developing the remote pilot concept, is well pleased with the day’s results. “The progress has been remarkable. The details in the virtual presentation have been made more accurate, including positioning of markers and spatial relationship to land from the ship.”

Heinonen is by admission hooked on technology, an amateur radio operator who has built his own boat, and he has given much of his own time to make the demonstration possible. “I am interested in all development involving technology, so I am willing to invest my time to help move new technologies forward. I am very happy to be involved in this project.”

Overall, Heinonen has only praise for the collaborative effort with ABB: “They are engineers, and we are seafarers, so I expected there would be a learning curve. It takes a while to comprehend the reality of the situation, but ABB has realized the sensitive points in our operations. In some ways, for them it’s like being a new captain having to get to know their first ship.”

A shared vision

Working closely together with the captain was only one of the many collaborations necessary to make the remote pilot control vision a reality, Mikko Lepistö says. “This has been a remarkable collaboration between all parties. ABB has of course had close interaction with the client, SLL Oy ferry company, and Helsinki City Transport, but also TRAFI, the Finnish Transport Safety Agency, the authority supporting the project. The teamwork has been truly amazing.”

From a captain’s viewpoint, what would Lasse Heinonen like to see in the future? “As pilot of the vessel, I would naturally like to see a remote bridge as close to reality as possible. Today we have taken a very important step toward proving that remote operations are possible, and I believe we are on the right track to making the necessary adjustments.”

Juha Koskela shares that view: “As vessels become more electric, digital and connected, ABB is able to equip seafarers with existing solutions that augment their skillsets. In this way, we are enhancing the overall safety of marine operations,” he observes, noting that the day’s success is only the beginning: “We went from vision to reality on this trial in a relatively short time, and I believe the pace of development of autonomous and automatic systems will only continue to accelerate.”

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