What will bridges be able to do in the future, and will the technology currently in development ever allow for a truly autonomous yacht? Tim Thomas investigates.
It wasn’t so long ago that the bridge of a yacht was little more than a jumbled collection of equipment – radar, depth sounder, radio, windscreen controls and more – clustered together, but each with its own set of switches, dials and styles. The bridge was the preserve of the captain and a select number of the crew and its overall design was focused on the functional rather than the aesthetic. Gradually, however, things began to change. First, the equipment became more advanced, more streamlined and more integrated. Second, owners decided they quite liked the idea of sitting near the driving seat, either to take advantage of the forward view or to experience the hotbed of ship navigation first-hand. Now we live in an age where integrated bridges and bridge design as a whole are hot topics and, according to the experts, the link between the two is closer than you might think. “[The two] don’t blend together for commercial shipping but they do for yachts,” explains Mike Blake, founder and president of bridge and systems specialist Palladium Technologies. “Over the past 15 years we’ve seen a transition where the yacht’s bridge has become more than just a functional space – it has become more of a command centre, a ‘Star Trek’-looking bridge that owners want to bringtheir friends to. The modern bridge is truly an operations centre.” So what does that mean for so-called integrated bridge design? “I really see the integrated bridge evolving and becoming stronger,” says Blake, “and not necessarily as the place from which we navigate the vessel but where it becomes the absolute command centre for the entire yacht.”
“I really see the integrated bridge evolving and becoming stronger, and not necessarily as the place from which we navigate the vessel but where it becomes the absolute command centre for the entire yacht.” – Mike Blake, founder and president, Palladium Technologies
Key to this will be ensuring not only that the various bits of equipment can talk to each other, but also that future technological developments are also considered from the outset. “If we think simply in terms of bridge electronics like radar, eight years ago radar basically communicated with the other instruments through the NMEA interface and just shared very basic data,” Blake continues.
“Today we can do radar overlays on thermal imaging cameras, which never existed before and goes way beyond the basic NMEA share. So those components on the bridge – radar, sonar, chart plotter, etc – have become more tightly integrated across their platforms. Designs are the most critical part,” he adds, “rather than snapping together pieces of equipment and hoping they will work in unison. The designs have to be very well thought out, and also thought out well past today. We have to project five to seven years into the future to make sure these systems have longevity and can be modified both on a hardware and a software level.” “Given that safety must always be the main focus when creating an integrated bridge,” says Massimo Minnella, CEO of bridge integrations specialists TEAM Italia, “the most important point to develop in order to shape the bridge is ergonomics, backed by the correct technological innovations. A perfect balance of features, such as technological and ergonomic innovation, determines the usability of the bridge. Also, safety must be supported by the correct engineering, including those parts under the console that cannot be seen but are the heart of the system.” “You can take the technology and put it up there,” Blake agrees, “but to actually have it work in a cohesive nature takes the proper vision to know where the technology is going and also what can and can’t be done and what the end user is actually looking for.” To see how far bridge design is advancing, take the NextGen bridge developed by TEAM Italia.
“Two years ago we began presenting our NextGen solution, which is moving in the ‘spaceship’ direction,” says Minnella. “Interactive displays have always been the basis of our i-Bridge product. We are also assessing and testing the possibility of actually using transparent screens on a bridge.” Blake lets on that Palladium Technologies is already taking that next step, revealing details of the bridge for a 128m yacht that is due to be launched in around three years’ time. “It is using all the technology that we are seeing today and some of that is very much on the leading edge,” Blake says. “We have a very large transparent LCD that sits in the middle of the bridge and can be operated with hand motions from either side, so you can have an operator with all the information displayed on that screen. We also have a 3D holographic projection of the vessel that can be manipulated in the centre of the bridge. The bridge itself is pure glass – so no switches or physical controls anywhere – and that glass is both on the horizontal and vertical surfaces.”
“The most important point to develop in order to shape the bridge is ergonomics, backed by the correct technological innovations.” – Massimo Minnella, CEO, TEAM Italia
Blake cites that the owner’s brief, simply put, did not consider the décor of the walls or the furniture, concentrating solely on creating the most technically advanced bridge it was possible to design. Of course, bridges on large yachts built to Class have to conform to certain standards and limitations of primary conning equipment, so for this project the required kit is located in the radio room, and the yacht will effectively be run day-today from the secondary equipment and interface. Blake’s ‘Star Trek’ bridge and TEAM Italia’s NextGen concepts reflect other areas of development where the realisation of a concept is coming ever closer: giant head-up displays and interactive, augmented reality displays. It is something that Rolls-Royce, with Finnish partner VTT, has been exploring with the oXbridge concept, which it claims will be a reality by 2025. “We believe these kinds of technologies will be amongst those that generate the most interest in the future,” states Minnella. “This is why our R&D department also began specific studies some time ago and is currently developing solutions that provide for the use of these technologies. However,” he cautions, “the TEAM Italia philosophy has always been that the necessary testing and assessment times must pass before any new technology is applied.” Of course, this all assumes that the actual bridge equipment itself can run and interact seamlessly. Getting equipment to communicate in a common format has often presented something of a challenge for integration experts, not least because bridge systems suppliers tend to utilise their own data protocols in order to preserve selling a complete bridge solution, rather than allowing customers to pick and choose the bits of equipment they want from various manufacturers. However, the problem also runs deeper. As elements of the bridge become ever more deeply integrated – the radar and ECDIS system, for example – using equipment from more than one manufacturer, which is perhaps linked via a third-party’s data protocol, the question arises of who takes responsibility for the integrity of the system as a whole.
Things might be starting to change though. The recent requirement for all equipment to be able to send information in a common format that can be read by a voyage data recorder (VDR) means that the seeds of a common language have been sowed, and this will likely only become more prevalent as the concept of e-navigation begins to creep into commercial shipping.
The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee defines e-navigation as “the harmonised collection, integration, exchange, presentation and analysis of marine information on board and ashore by electronic means to enhance berth to berth navigation and related services for safety and security at sea and protection of the marine environment”. All corners of the commercial maritime industry are beginning to look at new ways of monitoring and directing ship traffic, and this will inevitably lead to further developments. The next logical step from e-navigation is a move towards autonomous vessels, and developments in research and studies – from EU-backed research schemes such as MUNIN to business R&D led by such titans as Rolls-Royce – suggests that autonomous shipping and unmanned bridges are inevitable, at least for commercial vessels.
“The new frontier of naval integration is that of e-navigation, that is remote decision-making and supervision of operations,” says Minnella. “Evolution in satellite communications means that in the very near future captains will be able to use instructions and directions from base in order to monitor and even control on-board operations, particularly in critical situations.” Development of the new communication protocols between systems is moving in this direction, he claims, and the use of the IP network structure facilitates integration and communication with remote locations. “The commercial sector is very active in [autonomous vessel research] right now as that’s the greatest payback,” adds Blake. “Yachts are not so concerned with that; I think it’s more a follow-on to the commercial vessels. But I believe we will see some of this in yachting within the next five-plus years. But it’s got to be the integration of all the instrumentation that will really be an offload from the commercial side, and commercial shipping is really pushing the envelope on that.”
As elements of the bridge become ever more deeply integrated, using equipment from more than one manufacturer and perhaps linked via a third-party’s data protocol, the question arises of who takes responsibility for the integrity of the system as a whole.
But neither Blake nor Minnella believe that such a high degree of autonomy – at least to the point of driverless yachts – will ever quite become standard, although their reasons are different. “Megayachts are still a means of pleasure rather than work, and the routes and destinations are often changed depending on an owner’s wishes,” says Minnella. “We also believe it is more appropriate to entrust the safety of the yacht to the experience of the captain,” he continues, “who will be able to guarantee effective and efficient action in any situation, thanks to the technology available. Bridge integration must be able to provide the decision makers, who are still the captains as far as we’re concerned, with increasingly more accurate information, and do it fast.”
“The topic of so-called ‘big data’ is very relevant. At sea there has been a bottleneck, but we (and others) are opening that up. We are, in a sense, trying to define the connectivity of the future.” – Rob Myers, senior director of market delivery maritime, Inmarsat
Blake believes that while more autonomy may become commonplace, the captain and first officer will never be replaced, but perhaps it will be that their roles shift from actually conducting the navigation at all times to spending more time on the yacht and crew management. It’s a radical idea that easily ruffles feathers when brought up, as demonstrated by the generally hostile initial reception to Blake’s presentation at the 2015 Global Superyacht Forum on this exact topic. Apart from anything else, it comes down to a question of trust. “I don’t think technology is the hurdle because that is evolving at a very fast rate,” Blake says. “Moreover, once we start trusting our cars to drive us at 80mph on the highway within inches of another vehicle, the adaptation to being on the seas and able to navigate autonomously becomes very easy to transition into.
“So I do see autonomous yachts,” he continues, “but what I see is a transition. On commercial ships you will see the bridge change to where there is more minimalistic equipment and the vessel itself operates and navigates from point A to point B. On a yacht, we will have that technology integrated, but the bridge will become more of a complete command centre for the entire vessel. It will also be an area for the owner to bring their guests to see that level of technology that they would not have seen in the past. So rather than seeing the captain and first officer up there continually navigating the vessel, there may be nobody up there apart from the owner and guests.”
One of the problems facing the adoption of such autonomous technology in any segment of the maritime industry stems from the sheer amount of information that would be needed in order for there to be constant flow between shipping and shore. That operation in itself requires potentially a huge amount of bandwidth at satellite level and with a frequency that is reliable. Rob Myers, senior director of market delivery maritime at satellite communications company Inmarsat, cites current client Maersk as an example of how much data might need to be transmitted for true autonomous shipping. He estimates that the Maersk EEE extra large tankers alone, which collect data every half a second, generate 30 terabytes of data every month. “The topic of so-called ‘big data’ is very relevant,” he says. “At sea there has been a bottleneck, but we (and others) are opening that up with our Fleet Xpress Kaband services. We are, in a sense, trying to define the connectivity of the future.”
It could also be that the autonomous yacht will mutate in other directions. Blake sees a further area of development that incorporates several aspects of bridge and systems integration and monitoring, autonomy and data transmission and combines it for processing through nextgeneration software. “It’s already moving towards a trend of predictive analysis,” he explains, “and we are implementing deep learning artificial intelligence (AI) within our SiMON monitoring system to make it far more than just a reporting, monitoring and control system. It will be much more a live, intelligent being that can make decisions.”
Blake hopes to roll out the first phase of the system towards the end of 2016, and it will be based on the way an engineer would think when it comes to the maintenance and operation of the systems. “We’re collecting so much data in real time – three times a second on all the critical systems on the vessel,” he explains. “From that, when I put my learning systems in there, it will start to understand how this equipment should be operated and start both to identify anomalies and to take corrective action. It will truly parallel the autonomous operation of a yacht.”
It goes beyond simple yachtcentric systems too – by gathering all the data from all the yachts running the software and storing that data in the cloud, a deeper understanding can be developed and used by the software. “The systems could look at a cross-section of data on, let’s say, a particular model of Caterpillar engine that’s installed on several yachts we’re monitoring,” he enthuses. “The system would be able to make predictions on the potential issues that might be coming up before they even occur on a vessel.” Such a system could not only prove a useful tool for the safe and efficient running of yachts, but also provide invaluable data to manufacturers on the performance of their equipment in the field. “It would allow them to build better units, and also be proactive in addressing potential issues before they occur, which in turn increases customer service levels,” Blake suggests.
With the true ‘Star Trek’ bridge on the near horizon, with commercial shipping pushing ever closer to autonomy at sea, and with software developing deep thought algorithms and potentially true AI, the bridge and yacht of the future might be a very different animal. It’s not all bad news for crew though. Blake, a self-confessed driverless-car nut, adds a note of encouragement. “Even the bridge of the Starship Enterprise was manned,” he quips.