VR, AR, AI in shipping

VR, AR, AI in shipping are all commonly used abbreviations. Historically equipment makers have recommended maintenance regimes for their products. In the early years after sale, following the recommendations are essential to meet warranty requirements. After that most operators have tended to follow the OEM’s recommendations and use a preventative maintenance strategy that requires replacement of parts at specified intervals.

More recently there has been growing acceptance of condition based or predictive maintenance regimes. In these there is a reliance on testing of lubricants for signs of component wear and more measurement using sensors for parameters such as heat, pressure, temperature or vibration.

Ships are a complex mix of machinery and equipment systems and although some are unique to ships, many have equivalents on shore. First and foremost among these are the engines, especially medium-speed, four-stroke engines. On ships these can be either propulsion engines or gensets and a similar situation exists onshore where they are used in power generation or in road and rail transport.

For decades it has been common practice in shore situations for the engine maker to be heavily involved in maintenance of their equipment in power stations. In some cases, the power station operator may even contract with the engine maker to provide all the staff necessary to routinely operate the engine. With the development of electronic engine management this has accelerated the use of condition based maintenance regimes.

This has been taken a step further still because the more robust communication facilities available on shore have allowed equipment to be monitored around the clock from central control stations and the computerised engine control units can be modified remotely to adjust engine running parameters or even to stop an engine if a dangerous situation develops.

These developments are gradually finding their way into the marine sector but restricted communications on many ships combined with the fact that equipment on older vessels may not be suitable for some of the changes that are becoming possible. Almost all engines installed on ships today will be electronically controlled and have an engine control unit and some older engines can be upgraded.

In order to switch from a preventative maintenance regime to a condition based regimes, historic data (which may be paper-based) needs to be collated and recorded after which new data will be added either in real time if communication systems allow or at regular pre-determined intervals. If the shipowner chooses an OEM’s maintenance service, then the data can also be used along with data from other operator’s engines to build a database for each engine type which can help with trend analysis using AI and algorithms based on multiple recorded faults.

Unlike shore-based engines which are usually standard models, marine engines can often be one-offs particularly in the two-stroke arena. Even seemingly identical engines may have differences if built by different licensees who are able to make some of their own modifications. This can make building databases difficult but even if the quantity of data is small, it can be used to predict some problems.

Although the majority of shipowners moving to condition based maintenance tend to use the services offered by OEMs, there are a growing number of third party providers in the market. A ship operator with multiple engine brands across its fleet may prefer to use such a service for a whole variety of reasons including – but not limited to – cost.

Is VR, AR, AI in shipping being left behind?

Shipping is not being left behind in other aspects of maintenance and training. Both of the main engine makers (MAN Energy Solutions and Wärtsilä) have embraced VR, AR, AI in shipping training and added it to simulator training and hands on training services. This does permit engineers to be trained on products that are not physically present and has potential for use onboard ships as well as in training establishments.

It is however in the field of remote assistance enabled by augmented reality that the greatest potential for onboard use is to be found. In early 2019, Wärtsilä successfully tested its remote guidance service that it plans to roll out to customers making use of the Pointr App that can run on mobile phones and tablets.

The tests were conducted in real time using voice-controlled Augmented Reality (AR) wearables and remote guidance software, onboard the Huckleberry Finn, a ro-ro ferry operated by TT-Lines, while sailing between Trelleborg, Sweden and Travemünde, Germany.

Simulated remote guidance service situations were carried out on the ship’s navigation equipment on the bridge and on the shaftline seals and bearings in the engine room. The Wi-Fi signal for the video sessions was facilitated by a portable on-deck LTE antenna. The onboard simulations were monitored in real-time by expert Wärtsilä personnel located in Gothenburg and Hamburg. The tests verified the effectiveness of the AR wearables as a means of communication, while the portable Wi-Fi antenna provided a strong signal wherever needed.

Wärtsilä’s remote guidance service also proved successful during a demonstration in the TT-Lines office, during which remote guidance opportunities for use in dockings and shipyard overhauls were discussed.

Some months after the Wärtsilä tests ABB which manufactures turbochargers, motors and propulsion systems also began introducing AR functionality for its service teams and client contractors and engineers. 

ABB’s Ability Remote Insights service will give field service technicians an AR interface that includes remote guidance, screen sharing, and document sharing to guide them through performing specific tasks. ABB says in addition to improving the performance of technicians working in remote locations in terms of speed and efficiency, the system will improve response times and extend asset lifecycles.

ABB supplies AR software but hardware is left as a choice for the user. Ideally this should be an AR or mixed reality headset such as the Hololens, Google Glass Enterprise, or Vuzix AR glasses as the user will have both hands free for working and to use hand gesture controls to navigate the Remote Insights interface. ABB says the system can also work on smartphones, tablets, or other wearables.

Remote classification society surveys directed by shore personnel and using crew handling cameras became increasingly common as Covid-19 lockdowns prevented surveyors travelling to some locations. Covid aside, a remote survey avoids waiting time for a surveyor to reach the vessel, as well as unnecessary travel costs.

Most class societies carried out remote surveys and are now considering the roll out of remote surveys under more normal conditions not least because travel costs and delays are eliminated, the surveys are quicker, produce survey documentation instantly and thus allow updates of survey status on electronic records.

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