Sailing straight and true on Crooked River

The largest vessel ever to perform an automated dock-to-dock transit was a testbed for Wärtsilä Voyage’s new SmartMove suite – in some of the most challenging navigational conditions imaginable.

A waterway named ‘Crooked River’ by Native Americans may not seem like the natural place to test navigational technology. But while other vessel autonomy trials seek out calm and quiet stretches of open water, Great Lakes shipowner American Steamship Company (ASC) had a different idea. The result was a challenging testbed for Wärtsilä Voyage’s SmartMove suite and a pioneering deployment of intelligent navigation systems.  

The five-mile stretch of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River between Lake Erie and the steel mill at Cleveland East was not built using a plumb line. Its numerous sharp bends host 22 bridges, various other manmade obstacles and wildly varying currents. On the way the ship must navigate bottlenecks caused by high commercial and pleasure traffic. One false move and it would be easy for vessels to run aground, crash into bridges or building or collide with other river users. And with a nearby population of around two million, few errors go unnoticed - especially if made by a bulk carrier loaded with 24,300 tonnes of iron ore. 

American Courage may be the smallest member of the ASC fleet, owned by Rand-ASC Holdings LLC, which includes the 1,000-foot vessels that discharge the ore at the mouth of the river, but it is to date the biggest vessel ever to perform automated dock-to-dock operations. At 42 years old, it may also be the oldest. But Wärtsilä’s SmartMove technology has given the freighter a new lease of life, helping it to keep the steel mill supplied with enough iron ore to produce around three million tonnes of steel each year. 

The feat – the automated transit between river terminal and steel mill, as well as automated docking at both terminals - is even more remarkable for the fact that it is also performed backwards. There is no space to turn a 190m ship on the wildly wandering Cuyahoga River. Once American Courage has discharged its cargo, its captains – some of which have performed thousands of transits - had to inch the vessel back down the river towards the lake in reverse (or, more correctly, astern). The automated navigation system now has to do the same. 

A high bar 

With those odds stacked against it, one might ask why this particular application was chosen to test the new technology. The question answers itself, says David Foster, CEO of Rand-ASC Holdings LLC.

If it can work there, it can work anywhere. We had to set a high bar. We talked to several groups and Wärtsilä was the only one that could do it.

- David Foster, CEO of Rand-ASC Holdings LLC

Not all the capabilities required were immediately available. Some had to be developed bespoke for the Courage. Mr Foster highlights one of the persistent challenges of navigating narrow and cluttered shipping lanes in urban areas. 

“Sometimes when you’re operating automatically if you’re around bridges or buildings you can lose satellite signal. But when you're in a very tight navigational area, you cannot lose control for any amount of time. We wanted a redundant, backup system that was relied on terrestrial signals rather than on satellite. So we went through one of the Wärtsilä companies and they actually developed, enhanced and refined the technology we needed.” 

This secondary position sensor – based on Wärtsilä’s SceneScan - was not the only innovation. American Courage provided a test case through which Wärtsilä was able to integrate its intelligent navigation products into one platform. The Wärtsilä SmartMove Suite brings together the industry’s most advanced sensors and high-accuracy ship control systems, enabling automated sailing and allowing the operator to focus on more demanding tasks.

© ASC-Rand Holdings LLC

As the American Courage case highlights, SmartMove can upgrade existing vessels to dramatically improve safety, efficiency and productivity on the water. The technology enables ship owners to modernize their fleets at a fraction of the cost of a newbuilding or extensive refit. The aim is not to replace crew but to enhance their capabilities as they traverse shuttle routes, congested or restricted areas. When vessels must operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, automated dock-to-dock transit can help to ensure that every trip is conducted safely. 

Supporting not replacing 

“Advanced decision support bring value because they can automate the repetitive tasks, such as docking on repeated itineraries,” explains John J Marshall, Senior Business Development Manager, Automation & DP - Americas, Wärtsilä Voyage. “This allows the operator to focus their bandwidth on the parts of the operation which require attention from the astute human, such as the unforeseen circumstances where judgement trumps adherence of established software rules.” 

Advanced decision support allows the operator to focus their bandwidth on the parts of the operation which require attention from the astute human.

- John J Marshall, Senior Business Development Manager, Automation & DP - Americas, Wärtsilä Voyage

The SmartMove package provides a single digital platform through which five navigation software products are available. Wärtsilä SmartDock and SmartTransit provide consistent and repeatable docking and undocking and transit. Successful sea trials were carried out last year onboard Folgefonn, an 85m ferry owned by Norwegian operator Norled. The ground-breaking trial paved the way for the testing in more complex conditions and at a larger scale onboard American Courage.  

SmartPredict uses the latest advances in vessel motion prediction to allow operators to see the impact of their actions on screen, making manoeuvring safer. It incorporates a full mathematical model of the ship into software and uses proven dynamic positioning analysis algorithms to evaluate forces affecting the vessel. SmartDrive provides simplified control of vessel movement and basic station-keeping ability. Vessel speed and rate of turn are controlled directly, allowing the vessel to hold its position when the joystick is centred, even against wind and currents. 

Finally, SmartEntry provides automated alignment for lock and restricted harbour entrances. This reduces the potential for vessel contact with the lock and improves entry efficiency and repeatability, aligning a vessel’s track precisely for lock entry. 

The core software framework (including controls, sensor processing, thruster allocation logic and track follow functionality) is borrowed from Wärtsilä Voyage’s dynamic positioning portfolio, which has been proven over several years in some of the world’s harshest environments. The standard hardware setup comprises redundant controllers and displays, along with a sensor suite capable of detecting angular velocity, motion, wind, and global location. 

Integrating technologies 

These technologies were available separately before. But integrating them was a very different challenge, says Thomas Pedersen, Director, Automation & Dynamic Positioning, Wärtsilä Voyage. 

We are effectively making each component smart so that the ship itself is capable of working as efficiently as possible.

- Thomas Pedersen, Director, Automation & Dynamic Positioning, Wärtsilä Voyage.

“Decades of research and maritime data, multiple technologies, real-world testing, engineering, and data have gone into this solution, and we’re pleased to be celebrating a new era of smart navigation together with American Steamship Company.” 

Mr Foster also hails the strength of the collaboration. “They saw the vision. They worked with our group to determine what we needed from an operational perspective, identified the technology that would work and pulled them together. From a ship operator’s perspective what is great is that they didn’t try to sell us what they had. They sold us what we needed.”

© ASC-Rand Holdings LLC

The technologies were installed onboard American Courage during its last winter lay-up – ice prevents year-round operations for many vessels on the Great Lakes - and the ship has been testing the system since March 2020. Wärtsilä SmartPredict has been in use during operation since the system was installed and autodocking using Wärtsilä SmartDock has been successfully tested. Subsequently, simulated river transits have been performed in open water. Following these successful trials, the next steps entail fulltime deployment. But ASC’s ambitions do not stop at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. 

This is a pilot project to prove the technology and then look to expand it across our fleet.

- David Foster, CEO of Rand-ASC

ASC operates 12 lake freighters traversing the winding, often narrowing, waterways and locks of the Great Lakes. This includes the 300m vessels that transport the iron ore from the Mesabi Range iron mining area on the north shore of Lake Superior, through St Marys River to Lake Huron and through St Claire River to Cleveland on the south shore of Lake Erie. They themselves are just part of a Great Lakes fleet of more than 100 freighters transporting more than 100 million tonnes of raw materials each year. 

Those vessels also face considerable navigational challenges – not least the tight tolerances on some canals and waterways, along with increasing commercial traffic volumes. But as Mr Foster notes, if Wärtsilä SmartMove can safely steer American Courage along the crooked river, automating navigation on other vessels should be straightforward. 

“We selected the toughest navigational area that you can imagine,” he summarises. “We went forward going upstream and reverse coming downstream in very tight quarters. Then we required a secondary system to the satellite-based system so that you never lose control of the vessel. It makes the open ocean look pretty simple, doesn’t it?”  

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