Paving the way towards autonomous shipping: ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control

Moving towards increasingly autonomous operations require a “sense-decide-act” cycle, where a captain receives information, then plans the next move and acts. This, in turn, requires a solution that is more than a regular dynamic positioning (DP) system. Keen to respond to customer requests we developed ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control – the first solution that can “act” across the entire speed range.

  • Passenger ferry Suomenlinna II, retrofitted with ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control, was remotely piloted through test area near Helsinki harbor in November 2018
  • ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control

When we started to develop ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control, putting the user experience first – and enabling full vessel control literally at the fingertip – was a priority. Our in-house designers and engineers run the product development and client workshops as an interactive process, collaboratively building a tool that would pave the way toward autonomous shipping.

The result is a control system that allows the user to maneuver the vessel through the full speed-range, not just low speed DP operations. With ABB Marine AbilityTM Pilot Control, the operator can maneuver the vessel from dock to dock without having to change control position or system. This would be analogous to changing the steering wheel in a car from one side to the other as you move from suburban roads to a highway. The touch-based operator panel is intuitive and easy to use and is designed based on the input from operators and users from our reference team.

With the new DP system now part of ABB’s portfolio, our customers can benefit from the full integration of solutions – from office to propeller.

Further down the line is an autonomous ship – a highly sophisticated vessel that can operate, maneuver and navigate without human interaction. The journey to this transformation, however, needs to happen in a step by step manner. What we are doing today is giving the operators a helping hand in achieving a better overview, awareness and easier decision making.

The new DP system is part of ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot family and cannot be considered separately from ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Vision, the situational awareness system that takes advantage of digital twin technology to offer multiple visualizations of a ship’s surroundings in real time. All of the products in this family have champion the same user-centric experience and feature a similar look and feel. They seamlessly collate all the available information, alarms and measurement values from several different systems to ultimately enable easy access to big data analytics. Indeed, under current regulations, the sense- decide- act cycle is fully achievable with a Marine Pilot Vision providing the sensing, the Officer of the Watch making the decision and executing that act through Marine Pilot Control.

Under the hood

Below the surface, ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control consist of an interface module, an MPC (Model Predictive Controller) with a nonlinear observer, a thruster allocation and joystick.

The state estimate from the sensor fusion algorithm determines the current state of motion and position of the vessel. The motion and position controller determines the optimal force and torque that needs to be applied to the ship to maintain the current motion and position or to achieve desired motion and position. The controller uses the ship model as well as the thruster dynamics to calculate the optimal control action.

The controller parameters, such as the gains for the heading, surge and sway control, can be modified by the user. The dynamics of the ship model are automatically chosen based on the ship speed, and therefore the controller enables controlling the ship in all motion states.

The thruster allocation uses thruster models, thruster status signals and status of the power plant to determine the best way to produce the required force and torque. In addition, each thruster can have forbidden sectors where it is not allowed to produce any flush so as to keep other thrusters in a hydrodynamically clean operation or remove inefficient thrust deductions. The algorithm enables the configuration of several constrains into the system, so that the most desired behavior of the vessel is obtained.

It is also possible to configure speed-dependent models for the thruster allocation. This is the key enabler use the solution in all operational situations, not only in low speed maneuvering. For vessels fitted with ABB Azipod® propulsion, these can be used in an optimal way facilitating rudder forces to be considered.

By default, the algorithm calculates the most fuel-efficient solution. In case the user prioritizes the maneuverability, the algorithm can be run in a mode where the solution that is reached fastest is chosen. The settings of the thruster allocation can be modified from configuration parameters.

In a manual joystick mode, the user directly manipulates the desired force and torque to the thruster allocation from the joystick device.

The touchpoints

The ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control cabinet hosts two controllers – one for handling all the inputs and outputs (Signal Process Unit – SPU), and another for the vessel control algorithms (Dynamic Position Control Unit – DPCU). They communicate with the touch panel (panel PC) and the joystick. This is the core configuration that is needed to run the system. If desired, a screen can be connected to the system to allow a larger viewing platform.

The rather small and easy to install hardware keeps the need of cabling to a minimum. Easy maintenance and service is yet another key benefit of the system design. This complements the clean look and feel throughout the entire system.

The user interface was designed to capture the essential information and to assist the end user in improving situational awareness during operation. In short, the user interface:

  • Connects visual and haptic feedback
  • Differentiates levels of information to limit cognitive overload
  • Gives optimal color contrast and visualization

ABB Marine AbilityTM Pilot Control follows ABB Marine & Ports’ software and automation user experience design language. It gives a unified, intuitive design with a consistent color scheme. Structured approach to the interface design, as well as a limited, high-contrast color palette, results in a clear situational overview for the end user, which ultimately enhances the safety of vessel operation.

Status quo

ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control was successfully launched at the international maritime trade fair SMM in September 2018. The system has obtained Lloyd’s Register’s Approval in Principle certificate.

In November 2018, the ice-class passenger ferry Suomenlinna II was remotely piloted with ABB Ability™ Marine Pilot Control through a pre-selected area of Helsinki harbor. This groundbreaking trial of a remotely operated passenger ferry proves that human oversight of vessels from anywhere is achievable with today’s technologies.


Contact us


Share this article

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter WhatsApp