Old Dogs. New Tricks

Old Dogs. New Tricks.

Algorithms, sensors, AI and robotics will soon be solving maritime problems. RoboShip shows they can save millions, and even old sea dogs can still teach us a trick or two.

At this month’s massive CES show in Las Vegas Binatone unveiled the Scout5000. This smart-collar for dogs allows owners to track their dear Fido via GPS, provides live ‘dog’s-eye-view’ video streaming, with a night vision mode, and comes equipped with speakers so that owners can utterly freak out their pet by talking to it remotely.

But the most useful function of the smart collar is reportedly as a highly effective training device, emitting a high-pitched ultrasonic sound that only dogs can hear. According to Binatone it works for dogs large and small, young and old.

So it appears that technology has finally put to rest that old chestnut about it being impossible to teach old dogs new tricks. Which is ironic because that particular belief is often quoted as a reason for established companies and industries failing to capitalise on the opportunities technology offers.

Back in the summer of 2014 we reported how airline easyJet and car manufacturer BMW were tying up with the likes of Fraunhofer and the Bristol Robotics Lab in order to leverage the latest technology developments [Work Hard, Play Hard, July 2014]. The result has been serious innovation in everything from new augmented reality approaches in production and quality control, to using drones to check airliner fuselage for damage.

At the time we asked if maritime was managing the same kind of partnerships and if so, where they were. Despite the introduction of mechanisation in shipping and shipyards, there are still a significant number of processes which have to be carried out by hand and often in less than ideal conditions. In maintenance, welding and inspection, cleaning and upkeep, humans risk both their safety and the increased likelihood of errors under such circumstances.

But whilst other industries are routinely using technology to ameliorate such problems, maritime seems to have been slower to exploit the potential. There are no shortage of technology-focussed academic research projects in our industry, but finding one which is designed from the outset for commercial implementation is more challenging. Discovering one which had developed cutting-edge technology that was about to be routinely fitted on new-builds was a red-letter day indeed.

Maritime likes things that do what they say on the tin, so full marks to whoever decided to name the project in question ‘RoboShip’. That same impeccable logic was applied to RoboShip’s predecessor project, ROT, or RObots In Tanks, run by the German DFKI Robotics Innovation Centre, which first identified the particular issues around the inspection and maintenance of tanks which are complex and difficult to access on board ships.

Their names may not be overly creative, but the projects themselves certainly are. The ROT project identified that robotics and automation could offer a way to deal far more efficiently and safely with these tanks. RoboShip has taken the work further, perfecting an intelligent, multi-sensor robot system to inspect and repair the ballast water tanks of large ships.

"At the beginning of the project we met here at Meyer Werft and showed all the partners the ballast water tanks we worked on so they could all see the situation for themselves. Then we explained what any robot developed would be required to do." Frank Norda, Meyer Werft GmbH

“At the beginning of the project we met here at Meyer Werft and showed all the partners the ballast water tanks we worked on so they could all see the situation for themselves. Then we explained what any robot developed would be required to do.” Frank Norda, Meyer Werft GmbH

It’s innovative stuff, and that applies to the structure of the SmartBot project too, of which RoboShip is a part. Made up of twenty-four partners collaborating in Germany and the Netherlands SmartBot is a cross-border project which aims to create a global knowledge hot spot in the field of robotic sensing. In addition to RoboShip SmartBot is also focussing research and development on the intelligent use of robots in production together with semi-autonomous robots systems which can improve farm production with less environmental damage.

Supported by regional government funds and the European Union’s INTERREG IVA Structural Funds program SmartBot is being seen as a new way for key sectors to share individual expertise and knowledge bases in order to build new capacities and drive knowledge transfer and innovation.

In the case of RoboShip the partners come from both academia and industry. On the academic side are Assen-based INCAS3; the University of Groningen, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and University of Twente Robotics and Mechatronics department. Leading from industry are developer and global supplier of 3D motion tracking products, Xsens, IMOTEC and DFKI, and—perhaps surprisingly to some—the venerable shipyard Meyer Werft GmbH & Co. KG.

The result is a fusion of expertise in the algorithms and software required to translate data into actionable, complex robotic tasks, and a live, extensive knowledge of industrial production systems and the challenges of the shipping and maritime industry.

One of those challenges is undoubtedly Ballast Water Tank (BWT) inspection and maintenance. Doing it requires dry-docking and sending a team of up to six inspectors inside. It certainly sounds unpleasant in an abstract sort of a way, but thanks to Meyer Werft the RoboShip team got the opportunity to see first-hand just how grim a task it could be.

“I have had the opportunity of seeing the inside of a freighter’s ballast water tank,” says Doctoral degree candidate Dian Borgerink of both the Robotics and Mechatronics department of the University of Twente and INCAS3 who developed the build-on robotic arm and sensor system for RoboShip. “After a voyage it is slippery with seaweed and is full of noxious gases. Tanks like these are almost inaccessible due to ribs, pipes and cables. Realising that people actually need to go into them to carry out inspection work was what motivated me to develop the robotic arm.”

It’s been a common assumption for many years that solving specific industry challenges required specific industry expertise, but that belief is coming under real pressure. From GE crowdsourcing a solution to its turbine blade problems to Local Motors using the crowd to cut military vehicle development cycles in half, we’re learning that a problem shared isn’t just a problem halved, it’s often a problem solved. When you take a smart guy like Dian Borgerink out of the lab and put him in a ballast water tank, he gets the problem, and he’s motivated to solve it.

Considering the cutting edge technology being put to work here there’s a certain irony that the shipping industry partner is one of the oldest shipyards in Germany. Founded in 1795 in Papenburg, Meyer Werft’s managing partner Bernard Meyer represents the seventh generation of family ownership and its current workload will keep the company busy well into 2019.

Employing more than 3,000 people and currently training around 300 apprentices Meyer Werft builds a wide variety of ships—from special purpose to gas tankers—but is particularly well-known for turning out some of the largest and most sophisticated cruise ships afloat, most recently the Quantum of the Seas, delivered in October last year.

Doctoral degree candidate Dian Borgerink of the Robotics and Mechatronics department at the University of Twente, with the robotic arm he designed for RoboShip.

Doctoral degree candidate Dian Borgerink of the Robotics and Mechatronics department at the University of Twente, with the robotic arm he designed for RoboShip.

Such impressive history and heritage can sometimes weight down companies faced with newer, nimbler competitors, but Meyer Werft has long recognised the significance of technology to its competitiveness. “We consider technology very important,” confirms Frank Norda of Meyer Werft’s Research and Development division who worked on the RoboShip project. “Only through our technology advantage can we hold our own against strong competitors from Asia.”

That advantage has required significant ongoing investment. A new building dock and pre-fabrication halls equipped with state-of-the-art laser welding plants saw the largest investment in the company’s history in 2002 and were extended to include another 120m of dock and an additional hall in the shipyard’s laser centre in 2008. But whilst Meyer Werft’s facilities are cutting edge, to date there’s been no solution to the problem of BWT maintenance.
“For Meyer Werft it is important to reduce the work of employees in the BWT, as these areas are just not human-friendly,” says Norda. “At the beginning of the project we met here at Meyer Werft and showed all the partners the ballast water tanks we worked on so they could all see the situation for themselves. Then we explained what any robot developed would be required to do.”

The system RoboShip came up with involves robots with multiple sensors and onboard diagnostic tools travelling on a built track through inaccessible parts of the ship’s hull. It requires neither detailed information about the tank being inspected nor a skilled operator. And, it also allows for the inspection and repair of the tanks while a ship is in the water.

“BWT’s are a dangerous and unhealthy environment, so obviously we would like to get the humans out of the tank and put a robot inside, but the inspection is also very expensive due to the downtime of the vessel,” explains Borgerink. “With a robotic system we want to inspect during the voyage, reducing cost significantly.”

Moving along a roller coaster-like set of rails built into the ballast tank, an autonomous robot uses a camera and multiple other sensors to inspect the steel. It transmits its video and other data to a human crew outside the tank, who assess it on a computer or tablet screen.

If the human operator sees anything that needs attention the precise location of the robot within the tank can be determined. In order to navigate inside the tank several measurements are combined including odometry, IMU data and the magnetic field inside the tank. “Each tank has a sort of magnetic signature. The manholes especially can be used as fixed beacons or fixed positions inside the tank which can be extracted relatively easily from the magnetic field measured by the robot”, Borgerink says.

The intelligent rail developed by RoboShip partner IMOTEC is of a very modular design making it easy to install inside the tank. “This was confirmed by the people from Meyer Werft who installed the test rail in our test tank,” says Borgerink. “Communication and power supply can be placed inside the hollow active rail connectors that connect two adjacent rail parts.”

At the moment the procedure would be for any necessary repairs to be scheduled the next time the ship is dry-docked, but in future the robot could use a laser to perform some types of work on its own during the inspection itself.
With dry-docking so expensive—BWT tank inspections can cost upwards of €700,000—the more which can be done when the ship is on the water, the better so there will be an immediate benefit for Meyer Werft’s customers when it begins integrating the technology into new vessels.

“The RoboShip robot can reduce the cost of the inspections required by rotation of the ballast water tanks,” says Meyer Werft’s Norda, “but for us a wider field of applications for the robot is important. We want to have a robot that can also perform minor repairs and clean surfaces or remove rust and paint with a laser.”


Venerable perhaps, but when it comes to technology deployment Meyer Werft isn’t missing a trick.

Borgerink is of the same view. “There is always more to investigate and to develop of course. For now we have ‘proof of principle’, which proved that what we designed works, but it still needs some more engineering to make it a full product. The challenge for a laser cleaner is not so much for the robotic arm; the arm will only manoeuvre the cleaning head. The power supply will be more challenging, lasers consume a huge amount of energy and increase batteries, weight etc.”

It seems clear that the RoboShip project is set to deliver even more in the future, but perhaps what it has done more than anything is demonstrate how a focussed partnership between new kinds of technology experts—mechatronic engineers, Robotics, AI and software experts rather than traditional maritime engineers—and the maritime industry can really work well.

“Our shipyard has had automated production for quite some time and there are robots already used in some areas of production,” says Norda. “Cruise ships are technologically very advanced, for example our latest new building the Quantum of the Seas has a robot cocktail mixer.” But one wonders whether the experience of the project and exposure to guys like Dian has had an impact on other areas at Meyer Werft? “We are also working together with people like Dian in other research projects,” Norda confirms.

Bringing technology solutions to bear doesn’t always require new technology, sometimes it just requires a fresh perspective. With so many large incumbent businesses across the spectrum of industry facing huge digital disruption, technology challenges and new competitive paradigms, solutions to problems are increasingly not coming from traditional places.

People with Dian Borgerink’s skill-set, and those of the RoboShip partners may be creating smart-collars for dogs and internet-connected toasters, but they’re also the ones who will be solving maritime’s problems in the future. And as the RoboShip project demonstrates, we have to not only seek them out, but motivate them to help us do so, just like Meyer Werft has managed.

They may be the oldest of sea dogs, but they aren’t missing a trick.

You can watch the RoboShip BWT robot in action on the Futurenautics site here.

Images credit © Meyer Werft; Getty Images; University of Twente


This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Futurenautics


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