The Journey to an Autonomous Marine Ecosystem


Digital technologies are dramatically impacting almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives—enabling businesses and individuals to freely communicate, share critical information, and do things more efficiently and cost-effectively. The marine industry is no different, and owners, operators, and shipbuilders now recognize the role that digitalization can play in transforming their businesses by reducing capex, opex, and enabling new value-added revenue opportunities throughout the maritime life cycle.

Such adoption is best achieved with an evolutionary approach, enhancing monetization of existing operations and assets, and enabling a rethink of new methodologies leading to autonomous operations. GE’s solutions have been designed to accelerate marine operations along this evolutionary digital journey, starting by shifting from the traditional “gauges and gut-feel” approach to “data-driven” decisions and “de-manning,” from offshore to onshore, and ultimately to fully “autonomous” operations. The solutions enable a holistic digital transformation across people, processes, and culture.

Shifting From “Gauges and Gut-Feel” to “Data-Driven” Decisions

The first step in the digital journey is to establish anytime-anywhere decisions and eliminate the need for equipment proximity—separating man from machines. Data will allow for informed and rapid decision-making.

This degree of separation of the operator from the equipment is achieved by connecting disparate existing control networks onboard the vessels and then providing automated insights, presented in a comprehensive dashboard that spans across all equipment performance, reliability, energy consumption, and logistics readiness.

Today, only about 3% of data from industrial assets is used for decision making or any meaningful purpose, which means that there is room for significant improvements.

For vessel, rig, or fleet owners, this means either building new smart ships with connected networks and assets or enhancing existing ships by making the connection to existing networks and assets to provide the path toward optimized operational performance. The path can be accelerated with a unified digital platform. Operational data from various equipment is rapidly centralized and harmonized to avoid deviations in operational methods and facilitate early correction of any anomalies detected. This rapidly maximizes productivity and minimizes performance variance across the fleet.

By creating a digital model of each asset or each vessel, we can compare real-time operational data with a digital model of the asset or the vessel to optimize the operational profile—when this comes alive, we call this the “digital twin.” Fleet owners or operators can get early warnings on equipment degradation and therefore correct problems before they cause an operational disruption to the process.

This foresight is enabling a shift from calendar-based maintenance to genuine condition-based maintenance, enhancing a vessel’s operational efficiency through reduced downtime and increased productivity. For example, offshore drilling customers have been using GE’s Asset Performance Management solution, SeaStream Insight, powered by Predix, to optimize vessel maintenance and operational efficiency on their vessels for a few years. The technology is being deployed on multiple rigs, targeting critical assets to achieve an opex reduction up to 20% and improve drilling efficiency.

De-Man From Offshore to Onshore

As the insights from the onboard dashboards can be transmitted from onboard to onshore, it allows knowledge and expertise to be centralized onshore and shared fleetwide.

Equipment performance data can be used for many performance optimization activities. One such example is to better determine fuel efficiency and overall trip efficiency. This is achieved by combining data from external sources, such as weather forecasts, tidal patterns, and status updates from ports to automatically calculate the optimized speed (and thus fuel consumption) and what fuel to burn in real time; which a human operator will then select for action.

The shift of visibility and decisions from onboard to onshore helps centralize and share experts across the fleet instead of dedicated experts onboard and can enable more informed decisions on equipment performance, maintenance, logistics, and energy optimization. Other industries, such as aviation, have achieved similar efficiencies with great success. For example, GE’s diagnostic-based digital solution has helped Emirates Airlines gain 12 additional days of utilization and a 43% decrease in disruptions.

Fully Autonomous Operations

According to the US Coast Guard, human error accounts for up to 96% of all marine casualties, and carrying sailors accounts for 44% of a ship’s costs. Therefore, the goal of autonomy is clear and necessary. The new generation of control and automation technologies will accelerate the progression to autonomous “no-man” vessels, where intelligent digital solutions make all decisions about navigation, control, route, port, and logistics.

Much of the technology for autonomous operations is already available, but just as smart cars can’t be their smartest without a smart city to support them, an entirely smart ecosystem is needed to unleash the full potential of an autonomous smart ship.

Every stakeholder in the ecosystem needs to engage in the transition; from shipyards, bunkering, logistics, ports, and of course the ships themselves. We can create a world where a cargo ship will automatically alert a retailer that a delivery of new cargo is going to arrive ahead of schedule or where oil carriers are able to predict bad storms weeks ahead of schedule and avoid them, thereby reducing supply interruptions, which can truly transform the maritime life cycle.

*US Coast Guard. Image source: GE

We all face key challenges and questions around safety and liability, which are also addressed. Remote and autonomous ships must be as safe as existing vessels if they are to secure regulatory approval, that of the marine ecosystem and the wider public. Maritime law also needs to be discussed and updated to take this kind of vessel into account, and we are engaging with these key stakeholders.

Today, the marine ecosystem is just beginning its digitalization journey, and pioneering customers have fully embraced the need for change. As we provide more and more specific marine use cases proving the benefits, it’s a journey that everyone in the ecosystem can engage in order to stay competitive.

Digitalization should be approached as an evolutionary journey, rather than a single-step leapfrog to autonomy as some are advocating. Collaboration with the right ecosystem partners that take an inside-out data approach—whereby digitalization starts from connecting individual assets within a vessel and then progressively collaborating with more external data sets—and sharing knowledge and best practices along the way can lead to an accelerated return on investment.

With the right industrywide collaboration, we are sailing in the right direction to capitalize on digital opportunities with our partners today as well as those further on the horizon. Please join us on this journey transformation and partner with us to unleash the potential of our industry.

Andy McKeran is general manager of GE's Marine Solutions.



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