Autonomous SOVs – The path to increase efficiency

Jeroen Hollebrands
Jeroen Hollebrands
14 October 2021

Back in September 2019, Royal IHC, together with Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN) was awarded a subsidy by the Dutch government agency RVO to develop the autonomously operating Service Operation Vessel (SOV). Read more about this in our previous blog. After two years work the SOV project is now  complete.

Mission Master – The Intelligent Path Planner

The autonomous SOV can perform missions independently in an offshore wind farm. How does this work? A ‘virtual captain’ called the Mission Master controls the vessel operation, while being supervised by the duty officer. After the duty officer specifies the turbines to be visited, the system calculates the sailing route, or navigation task, taking into account the weather conditions, turbine access positions, and optimizes for the most optimum route. From here the navigation task is then executed by the IHC DP/DT system which navigates the SOV to the next turbine. When the vessel has approached the turbine, the Mission Master will then take control of the IHC gangway system to land the gangway onto the turbine platform. After completion of the transfers, the Mission Master will retract the gangway and set a course to the next turbine to be visited.

A question of teamwork

Many disciplines within Royal IHC contributed to the development of the autonomous SOV. Under the leadership of the Offshore Energy Vessel team,  the autonomous system and the simulator environment was developed by Digital Business Systems while Engineering in Kinderdijk provided the necessary design details of the vessel. This was followed by model tests and data analysis performed by MARIN last year. These tests confirmed the excellent capabilities of the vessel in rough North Sea conditions.

Results and challenges

First and foremost the autonomous systems was proven to execute missions effectively in a wind farm. We have demonstrated this in a purposely built simulator which has all the working components of the autonomous SOV. The tests compared actual routing of existing SOVs with the same mission executed by the autonomous systems. The results demonstrated the autonomous SOV taking a much more efficient routing when we added flexibility in the visit order to the turbines. This new capability has an enormous advantage during the operational phase as it optimizes the maintenance program of the windfarm owner at the same time it saves  fuel during a roundtrip, contributing even more to a sustainable eco system.

 Comparison of navigation in a wind farm between real and autonomous SOV

Figure 1: Comparison of navigation in a wind farm between real and autonomous SOV

One of the challenges in the development of the SOV concept is the arrangement of the wheelhouse, especially when taking into account autonomous operation. In this project this was achieved by using Virtual Reality (VR). By combining an already available 3D exterior model of the vessel with the wheelhouse interior in 3D it was possible to simulate the walk around the vessel and operate it from the wheelhouse using VR glasses.

With the help of the VR glasses we could confirm the excellent sightlines from the bridge and demonstrate the safe operation of the autonomous vessel to clients. The below picture is an indication of the visuals but it does not do justice to the immersive tool of VR. Ensuring safety and workability is a top priority in our projects and with this approach we made this happen.

 Example of SOV wheelhouse in virtual reality

Figure 2: Example of SOV wheelhouse in virtual reality

The next steps

A lot of work still needs to be done in regards to regulations in order to facilitate the operation of autonomous vessels. In this regard we are pleased that Royal IHC has been asked to join the USV working group from IMCA to assist in the development of guidance for the operation of autonomous vessels.

As for the development of the autonomous SOV, we are continuing to prepare the system for implementation. Until that time we will be showcasing the technology with its benefits to interested parties.