MEC Insenerilahendused OÜ, Hyrles, and TalTech teamed up to develop the prototype of an unmanned automatic ship.
‘We managed to get funding from the support measure NUTIKAS and thanks to that, the idea began to materialise. It would be impossible alone, anyway,’ Urmo Sisask, the head of Hyrles, notes and adds that the challenge is enormous and the roles have been clearly divided. ‘Hyrles is the promoter of the project and the future manufacturer. Technical design and solutions remain the responsibility of MEC Insenerilahendused and the TalTech Department of Electrical Power Engineering and Mechatronics will handle the energetics and software side of the unmanned ship.’ Sisask admits that everyone takes on tasks related to the type of knowledge and skills they have. If it is possible to advance with the prototype, other parties may also be involved. This would give the project a much more certain direction.
Preliminary work and uses
Before a more serious approach was taken in the matter, the participants gathered at the TalTech Small Craft Competence Centre to discuss together the need and possibility of such a development. ‘We had the Estonian Defence Industry Association, the Estonian Maritime Administration, and the Ministry of Defence at the meeting,’ Sisask reveals the background of the project. The goal was to create a new-generation prototype of autonomous floating craft, which could be adapted to solve different problems.
‘Our idea was that the unmanned autonomous ship should be multifunctional. In other words, we will create the platform and the superstructure that is added later will be the further development work to be performed, keeping in mind the more specific goal.’ Accordingly, this kind of a ship has multiple uses – counting seals, measuring the depths, searching for mines, carrying parcels, guarding the border, or engaging in pollution abatement. ‘The dominant vision has been that this kind of an unmanned ship has to be adaptable to various tasks. The border guard inevitably has its own goals, while the targets set in terms of cleanliness and monitoring seawater are quite different,’ Sisask admits. Accordingly, the product was not developed for only one target group.
The role of humans
Automation and digitisation are heavily discussed topics nowadays. The unmanned ship also aims at transferring to a machine the stages of work that can be transferred and leave for humans tasks that need more creativity.
‘Reduction in labour input is important for all of us. Instead of three crews, we can task one person to command, for example, three unmanned ships in the future,’ Mart Enok, the project manager of Hyrles, describes the further goal and adds that while the working time of humans is limited, no such restrictions apply to robots.
The creation of the prototype of an unmanned and autonomous ship is a highly research-intensive development, which must be viewed over a longer timeframe. As at today, the hull of the ship model as well as the initial software are in place. The first tests were carried out in mid-April. Together with the initial contacts and background checks, it took three years to reach this point.
This is a future development in every sense. On the one hand, the software side concerning artificial intelligence is complicated and is developing at a turbulent speed. On the other hand, however, legislation concerning such developments must catch up with what is going on so as to not become outdated. ‘Whenever new technology emerges, the legislation must follow at some point to set the framework,’ says Enok, explaining that rapid technological development puts a certain pressure on legislators.
Urmo Sisask draws a parallel with self-driving cars: these are also developed everywhere in the world, although this topic has not been properly regulated. So, the legislation simply must come along with new dreams and ideas.
Research-intensive development also means risks. If you develop something that already exists, you are running a step behind. This is why work is being done on developments and future services which seem unbelievable for people just now. ‘We must go on and life will catch up with us,’ Sisask sums up the topic. ‘We are not competing with the big ones who develop autonomous container vessels. This is a completely different scale,’ Sisask laughs, claiming that the Baltic Sea would also be too small for such an idea. ‘Our concept is that the vessel must be as universal as possible so it could be adapted to solving different problems.’
Wisdom of an unmanned ship
In the development of an unmanned ship, TalTech has assumed the task of resolving the issues related to transformers and energetics. ‘This is a fully electric vehicle, powered only by batteries,’ Indrek Roasto, the senior research fellow of the TalTech Department of Electrical Power Engineering and Mechatronics, explains the importance of the topic. While today, the transformers are already very efficient (efficiency 98%), then overly large and heavy batteries with a small capacity are still a limiting factor and a stumbling block. ‘In a ship, all systems are powered by electricity. Most of it goes into engines and movement,’ Roasto explains why a special emphasis was put on the development of the energy management system.
As the unmanned ship has already been tested on a dry land, then in April, the vessel was also actually launched on water. ‘We are going to test the prototype in actual conditions to develop the algorithm in the direction we want,’ Roasto says.
Smart development involves continuous analysing of the process and, if necessary, being ready to change the direction.
Another source of new ideas has been contacts with interest groups, whose needs can already be taken into consideration in advance, so to say. Testing will take place from spring until the ice sets in. After that, the activities will include software development and improvements.
A research-intensive development brings along unpredictable investments, which means a significant business risk. Yet, the added value of the product is enormous: ‘It may be that we are doing unorthodox things, think a little out of the box, and take a broader look at the future. We are thinking on how to be competitive also many years from now and not to stick only to what we are doing today.’
An unmanned ship could actually be seen in action in three years. It is clear that the issue is being dealt with, also globally. ‘Even if our ship is not sailing in three years, somebody else’s is,’ Roasto says.
Good to know
- Dimensions of the unmanned ship: 2.5 × 1.1 m
- Capacity: 50 kg
- Maximum speed: 6 knots (11 km/h)
- Range: up to 100 km
- This is a small craft that can be adjusted to fulfil different tasks while also being easily transportable