Simulation technology – a vital resource for testing autonomous ship operations

A new generation of training simulators is accelerating the prototyping, development and verification of autonomous systems for the smart shipping of the future

A greener, safer, more efficient and more sustainable future for maritime operations, in which autonomous systems will be responsible for handling processes right across the board, is well on the way to actualization. Kongsberg Digital’s advanced simulation technology, K-Sim, is a decisive ingredient of this technological evolution for its key role in predicting, prototyping and verifying autonomous systems while also enabling onshore operators to benefit from full training in safe and controlled conditions.

The gradual but purposeful shift towards more environmentally-responsible shipping practices is already exerting an influence throughout the maritime industry supply chain. More and more companies are seeking to put CO2 reduction plans in place involving, for example, the transportation of goods via electric and/or fuel-efficient vessels on short-haul, inland-waterway routes as opposed to deploying trucks on extensive road journeys. Figures suggest that the deployment of an autonomous barge could take around 7,500 trucks off the roads each year, resulting in a substantial reduction in emissions and easing traffic congestion.


KDI and the AUTOSHIP project

A major initiative in this respect is the AUTOSHIP project, the first of its kind, to which Kongsberg Digital (KDI) is an integral contributor. The four-year project, which has received almost NOK 200 million in funding via the EU research programme Horizon 2020, is being undertaken by KONGSBERG in collaboration with Norway’s foremost research organisation, SINTEF, as well as several European partner organisations, and will see KONGSBERG installing and testing autonomous technology on two vessels operating in markedly different environments. The Eidsvaag Pioner transports fish feed to fish farms along the Norwegian coast and in environmentally-sensitive fjord areas, while the other AUTOSHIP vessel is a Belgian pallet shuttle barge which transfers goods to and from large container ports via European canals.

The project is intended to drive the testing and perfecting of integrated, cyber-secure, next-generation technology for fully autonomous navigation and machinery systems, self-diagnostics, prognostics and operation scheduling, anticipating the commercialisation of autonomous shipping in a variety of contexts across the EU over the next five years. Advanced simulations and cloud-based communications systems are at the heart of this enterprise. As the AUTOSHIP project will demonstrate, KONGSBERG’s scalable, secure and cost-effective Vessel Insight maritime data infrastructure solution will enable digital services to be run on vessels and in the cloud – a vital requirement for vessel autonomy – while its vessel-to-cloud data capture functionality will provide the onshore fleet management and operations center with instant access to real-time vessel data.

Meanwhile, KDI’s advanced simulation technology will provide trainee operators with indispensable, predictive decision support. Digital twin models of the vessels will build competence, enabling trainees to become fully conversant with procedures to control and monitor the autonomous ships from a shore-based control center.


KONGSBERG, ASKO and autonomy

Another game-changing autonomous vessel project with Kongsberg Digital’s simulation technology at its core is currently in the planning stages. ASKO, Norway’s principal transport company, has teamed up with Kongsberg Maritime and Massterly to develop the AutoBarge, a fully autonomous craft which will be used to convey 16 semi-trailers at a time across the Oslofjord. When the vessel enters operation, it is estimated that its use will eradicate 2.1 million kilometres of road use and 5,000 tonnes of CO2. KONGSBERG’s virtual prototyping capabilities will be a fundamental asset as the project proceeds.


Virtual prototyping of autonomous algorithms and interfaces

Kongsberg Digital’s K-Sim simulation platform enables fast and effective virtual prototyping as well as the testing and improvement of autonomous algorithms as part of the development process. The Norwegian Maritime Directorate defines five levels of autonomy at sea, of which level 4 is when the vessel will be unmanned, but direct or indirect remote control can be implemented from an onshore control center to oversee complex procedures. The simulator may also be used for prediction-based simulation, based on live environmental and ship data. A key benefit here is that scenarios can be initialized quickly and simulated much more rapidly than in real-time in order to provide time-sensitive support on the outcome of commands from the autonomy controller and navigation systems. It can provide route verifications, power/energy consumption predictions, vital information on weather impacts and analyses based on live data derived from onboard sensors.


Shore control centers

Autonomous ships will be tightly integrated to control rooms manned on a 24/7 basis, such as those which are currently being built in Norway for the remote monitoring and management of the autonomous vessels. To ensure the highest availability and most efficient running of shore-based control facilities, the K-Sim simulator is also being used to test remote interfaces to control centers.

Kongsberg Digital is fully committed to developing new simulator standards aimed at building total competence, providing trainee shore control operators with the most comprehensive and realistic operational experience possible. Key to this is creating simulated prototypes of shore control centers: interfaces between K-Sim Navigation and real shore control centers will not only allow trainees to understand best practice for interfacing functionality, but will also assist training on all scenarios related to autonomous shipping, including familiarization with fault settings on autonomous navigation systems and dealing with emergencies. Training will also focus on the way shore control center operators interact with VTS center operators to ensure optimal communication and data exchange.