Predicting an autonomous future

3 min read
13 Mar 2017
Michael Ford

"SmartPredict is Wärtsilä’s latest innovation improving the safety and efficiency of vessel manoeuvring. By enabling the ship’s captain to accurately predict what will happen, it represents an important step towards fully autonomous operations."

Seeing into the future might appear to be merely wishful thinking, or something possible only in science fiction. However, Wärtsilä’s latest systems launch, SmartPredict, does precisely that; it tells the captain of a ship exactly what is happening during its manoeuvring operations, and what will happen if nothing is done to change its position.

Unprecedented input

Prediction systems have been around for some years already, and as such are not new. The aim of all these systems is to enable safe navigation between ports, and specifically to reduce the risk of accidents occurring within the ports. Two basic approaches have been used in developing these systems, based on dynamic and purely kinematic prediction models; the latter being concerned only with the motion without reference to the forces causing such motion. The simplification of these early prediction systems allows restricted use only.

In developing SmartPredict, Wärtsilä’s Dynamic Positioning (DP) unit has sought to overcome the inadequacies of the conventional systems available on the market. The biggest challenge to achieve this has been to utilise all of the parameters used for automated control by the DP system, and to adjust them for the motion characteristics of the vessel. The limited usability of most conventional systems is a result of the limited input they receive.

The Wärtsilä SmartPredict module takes advantage of the DP system’s built-in mathematical model to provide advanced motion prediction capability for the vessel. The input to the control algorithm takes consideration of the vessel’s current position and heading, as well as the velocity and rate of turn with all associated accelerations. Furthermore, the manual commands from the coordinated control joystick (3 axis), and environmental input from the onboard wind sensor(s) are included in the total equation. The overall level of input is, therefore, unprecedented in prediction systems, and all of these factors are continuously evaluated to provide a constant update of the vessel’s path.

What Where and When

In addition to displaying the vessel’s predicted future position and heading, SmartPredict uses proven DP analysis algorithms to evaluate the forces affecting the vessel, thus providing truly advanced motion predictions. What is more, the system comes with a configurable prediction time display. In other words, the system provides the operator with information regarding not only what is happening and where it is happening, but also when it might happen.

The Wärtsilä user interfaces provide a simple, intuitive display whereby the operator can toggle on or off the ‘ghost ship’ indicators for the predicted positions. The time steps for the predictions can be assessed from the display. SmartPredict is fully compatible with the Electronic Chart Display & Information System (ECDIS) overlay function in Wärtsilä systems and provides clear indications of potential dangers during manoeuvring operations. This immediately increases both the safety and the efficiency of the vessel’s movements.

While the initial development of this capability is aimed primarily at cruise ships and passenger ferries, it has obvious relevance also to any vessel that regularly needs to perform challenging manoeuvres. Development is also underway that will allow display of the ‘ghost ship’ indicators on other displays within the Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum family of navigational and control systems. This will enable the power of SmartPredict to be available even when using manual controls.

Future potential

Dynamic Positioning systems date back to the 1960s, which was when the DP industry as such was born. The evolution began, however, during the 1970s when the first commercial systems were introduced. The development during this phase included the introduction of modern control theories with mathematical modelling of the system. It was during these years too that concepts such as redundancy and feed forward became standard. The huge strides in computer technology from the 1980s onwards, however, enabled completely new DP capabilities. New functions were added to take advantage of the greatly improved processor power, while the user interfaces were also modernised.

Wärtsilä’s SmartPredict system now represents the beginning of the new evolution, which will inevitably lead to greater vessel automation. The technology is moving beyond merely maintaining station and onto better and smarter DP systems providing dynamic control. More and more operators are today looking for the safety and reliability of automatic operations. This means that each phase of vessel control will need to be validated and proven in order for true vessel autonomy to be possible. However, without question, SmartPredict is an important first step in the direction of achieving fully autonomous ship manoeuvring.

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