Maritime automation systems to enhance safety and security

article picture: Maritime automation systems to enhance safety and security

Shipping is in the process of becoming increasingly automated. New technologies can be helpful in making future maritime traffic more energy-efficient, non-polluting and safer than before. Still, automation has its risks, especially if ship control systems are not properly protected against cyber-attacks.

For a number of years, designers have developed various kinds of concepts for highly developed automation systems for ships, including remotely controlled and even totally autonomous vessels.

In North European waters, Rolls- Royce and the towage operator Svitzer demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel – a tug – at Copenhagen harbour in 2017. Around the same time, Rolls-Royce Marine established a research centre for remote-controlled and autonomous ships in Turku in southwestern Finland.

In April 2019, Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine became a fully integrated part of Kongsberg Maritime, but the research centre is still operational.

New technologies for various autonomous ship projects also include artificial intelligence (AI) systems for ship navigation. Among others, the Finnish Aalto University has participated in some of these projects.


Versatile Automation

However, maritime automation systems are not always intended to replace the ship’s human crew of operators by remote control or robotics. The development of sensors and automation systems for maritime applications can also benefit the operators of more traditional kinds of vessels.

In 2019, for instance, AI-based systems were tested on board Tallink’s ship ’Megastar’ in order to improve the performance of ship positioning and to have a more complete and error-free picture of the ship’s surroundings, e.g. by recognising and eliminating possible errors of radar imaging and of navigation satellites. Such errors might be caused by environmental factors but also by intentional jamming or cyber-attacks carried out by criminals or hostile nations.

One Sea, the industry alliance promoting and developing autonomous ship technology, has in recent times researched into various aspects of ship safety and autonomous technology. The alliance consists of a number of competent partners: ABB, Cargotec, Ericsson, Finnpilot, Fintraffic, Haltian, Inmarsat, Kongsberg, MTI, Napa, TietoEVRY and Wärtsilä, plus DIMECC, a Finnish innovation hub specialising in industrial digitalisation.

Cooperation For Safety

The Finnish Shipowners’ Association is one of the participants of the international One Sea alliance that is striving to enable commercial autonomous maritime traffic by 2025. The aim is to create better conditions for making shipping significantly safer and more energy-efficient.

”We have been in cooperation with One Sea for a few years now. Maritime automation is important for the shipping industry. It has a lot of development potential,” notes Ms. Sinikka Hartonen, Head of Environment and Technology at the Finnish Shipowners’ Association.

”Automation offers possibilities to improve the safety of navigation but it also creates much-needed tools to cut emissions and to make sea transportation even more environmentally efficient than it is today,” she continues.

”Onboard automation has existed for many years already but its use is constantly increasing. This does not mean that ships would need to be autonomous or remotely controlled. The first step and the main priority is that technological innovations should be taken into use to assist seafarers in decision-making by e.g. offering improved situational awareness.”

Many potential technologies already exist and could be taken into use, but it is important that their safety is ensured by further tests and pilot projects.

”The shipowners wish to promote and participate in projects that will help to understand the potential of the automation and how it could best be used in a safe and secure way,” Hartonen points out.


Environmental Efforts

According to recent research by One Sea alliance, shipowners could make good use of autonomous technology to support maritime decarbonisation efforts, now that the need for preventing the adverse effects of climate change is becoming increasingly urgent.

International Maritime Organisation’s Fourth IMO Greenhouse Gas Study in 2020 projected a 90 to 130 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from shipping by 2050. One Sea notes that this prediction contrasts sharply with the IMO’s target to halve maritime emissions by the same year.

Furthermore, One Sea alliance member Wärtsilä has estimated that maritime autonomy solutions can yield fuel savings of at least 10 precent on longer voyages by optimising vessel routing and speed. Even a short reduction in docking time can cut fuel consumption by two to three per cent per minute. Various other fuel-saving techniques are also currently under research.

Against this background, One Sea recommends that the shipping industry should act swiftly and decisively to reduce the environmental impact of maritime traffic on the climate. Automation technologies could significantly help these efforts.

Maritime incidents – such as collisions at sea – can have a serious impact on the environment. The situation could be improved by improving situational awareness onboard ships. Autonomous technology can prevent ships from performing dangerous and potentially harmful actions and keep vessels away from particularly hazardous sea areas altogether.

Promoting Cyber Security

With the rapid increase in automation and other maritime digital systems, cyber security has not necessarily kept pace with the progress.

There has been an increase in cyberattacks since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts warn that the cyber challenge is bigger for existing ships than it is for newer vessels that are purposely built to withstand cyber-attacks.

According to a recent One Sea report on ship automation and safety, maritime cyber security is affected by factors including – but not limited to – connectivity, artificial intelligence, situational awareness, sensors, digital health management, energy management and the environment, and the adoption of digital twin technology. A clear understanding of how data is transferred is essential for recognising and limiting potential risks.

photo: ONE SEA

Some shipping companies have been known to have adopted rigorous cyber security strategies and even to employ a team of hacking specialists, working round the clock to identify weak points in their systems. However, many other companies have more casual attitudes towards cyber security, resulting in weak links in the cyber protection firewalls.

Cyber-attacks on the guidance systems of autonomous or remotely controlled ships might result in entire vessels with their cargo being hijacked by modern- day pirates. Alternatively, such attacks might cause navigation errors possibly resulting in shipwrecks or serious oil leaks.

Serious Threats

Apart from these obvious motives, there are other reasons for current maritime cyber-attacks. Organised criminals are known to have utilised ransomware attacks to close down the computer and data systems of various kinds of companies, in order to extort money in exchange of opening up the systems again.

Shipping companies can be highly vulnerable to such attacks. In the case of container ships carrying perhaps 20,000 or more containers each, the loss of data detailing the contents, owners and positions of on-board containers could obviously cause a lot of confusion, or even lead to disruption of shipping operations. Many ransomware attacks are not being reported to authorities since negative corporate publicity could lead to loss of customers.

Furthermore, hostile states resorting to various kinds of hybrid warfare have increasingly become ”the usual suspects” in sophisticated cyber-attacks of all sorts, possibly targeting the control systems of cargo ships, offshore oil-drilling platforms, or even warships of other nations.

In the words of the recent annual report from the Finnish counterintelligence: clandestine operators of non-democratic states tend to have a wider range of operational tricks at their disposal than the more legitimate military and intelligence services of democratic countries usually have.

by: Ari Mononen
photos: Pixabay

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