‘I’ve always been fascinated by ships. I grew up on Nieuwe Waterweg – the ships basically sailed past my window. It’s so cool that nowadays I work on board the Floating Lab. Everything comes together here: the port, technology, innovation, artificial intelligence and human aspects.’ Port Authority employee Ton van der Weele travels through the port of Rotterdam on board Floating Lab – collecting a wealth of new data.
Floating Lab is a waterborne hi-tech lab that has been moving around Rotterdam’s port area since October 2018. The Port of Rotterdam Authority built the lab by fitting a range of smart features – cameras, measuring equipment and sensors – to its reserve boat RPA3. They’re used to collect all sorts of field data. The Floating Lab team works together with private sector partners, educational institutions and research institutes. The Lab provides a platform for testing ideas and developing Smart Shipping applications. But the data is used for various other research fields besides autonomous shipping. We speak with Port Authority staff Ton van der Weele and Harmen van Dorsser about connectivity, engine management, property management and the GDPR.
Programme Manager Harmen van Dorsser: ‘Smart ships that can operate completely autonomously are still a dot on the horizon. What’s important is that together with the maritime sector, we explore which paths we need to take to get there. The ongoing development of Smart Shipping has already created new possibilities. But a lot still needs to happen before a vessel can move through a port area either independently or controlled from a remote location. Connectivity is crucially important, for instance. The data link between vessel and shore needs to be 100% reliable. If you’re operating a ship from a distance, it only has to take one second of delay for you to hit something. At Floating Lab, we’re researching how to use IoT technology to achieve this standard of 100% connectivity in the port.’
Engine management and consumption
In the maritime sector, engine management (i.e. equipment that regulates the volume and composition of the fuel required by an engine) plays a vital role in cutting costs and improving a vessel’s sustainability. Floating Lab performs research in this field too. Asset Manager Ton van der Weele, who also works on board the lab: ‘Floating Lab is all about measuring. The monitoring equipment and sensors allow us to record when an engineer guns the engine during heavy weather to maintain speed, for example – even when it isn’t actually required. Gunning a ship’s engine has an impact on fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Floating Lab allows us to learn, by measuring, how much acceleration is required, and how to use weather conditions to your advantage. Fewer emissions can contribute to cleaner air.’
Measuring is also useful for maintenance and servicing. Ton: ‘The prop shaft (which together with the engine and propeller forms the ship’s propulsion system) makes a vibrating sound. Listening to this sound, an experienced engineer can tell when there’s something wrong, but he or she can’t locate the fault itself. At Floating Lab, we’re currently performing a test with vibration monitoring units on the prop shaft. These are fitted with a special sensor that registers vibrations. Say you register the same anomaly 100 times. This makes it easier to predict the location of a technical defect and when you can expect the fault to occur. It can even help you prevent the fault in question. This results in less maintenance, which can increase the vessel’s deployability – at a lower cost.’
Harmen adds: ‘Right now, we’re still at the stage of measuring, analysis and learning from the results. The system is able to ‘learn’ by analysing and registering data. Knowledge is key. It’s up to the market to find applications for this technology. Imagine a major shipbuilder decides to fit every vessel that left its yard with a little box that collects this kind of data and sends it to the engine’s supplier or manufacturer. It could be a tremendous financial impulse for a firm like that.’
The cameras on board RPA3 make video registrations of the quay areas in the port, which are dotted with stairways and bollards. Ton: ‘We’re exploring whether we can use these images for inspection purposes. We’re in talks with a company that captures images in the port area – a kind of Google Street View from the water. We’re looking into opportunities to bundle our strengths. For example, we know how much distance there should be between the individual steps of a stairway. We can indicate this in a software program by means of algorithms. And the same applies for how a quay wall should look. A fissure in a wall or a missing step in a stairway would automatically be picked up by the software. Allowing you to plan a very targeted inspection where required.’
Floating Lab and the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation): what do they have to do with each other? ‘Well, quite a bit!’ says Ton. ‘The GDPR protects people’s personal data, which is great of course. Except it puts us before something of a challenge. An inland vessel isn’t just a commercial asset; it’s also someone’s home. That’s why we’re required to anonymise the ship-related data collected via Floating Lab. One example would be the ship’s name. Similar to how licence plates and faces are blurred in Google Street View. We plan to develop a smart blurring tool for this – one that doesn’t remove too much information either.’
Harmen: ‘As the Port of Rotterdam Authority, we know first-hand how complex this issue can be.
We strive to always comply with legislation, which is why we want to approach this with the utmost care. We’ll be working together with educational institutions on this project. On the one hand it presents an interesting case for students to study in greater depth. On the other it raises awareness among this group that GDPR regulations are part of the challenge we are set before.’
PortXL is a global innovation programme that brings together a network of leading firms and experts for the purpose of accelerating innovative technologies. Harmen is currently in talks with the scale-up Keyou, one of the participants in the 2019 programme. ‘This company focuses on converting engines that run on fossil fuels into ones that run on hydrogen. I’m establishing whether Floating Lab can play a role in this. Because Floating Lab doesn’t necessarily have to stay on board RPA3 – the technology can be installed on whatever vessel you like.
This would allow Floating Lab to also research everything that has to do with hydrogen-powered shipping. That’s why we’re talking with the people of KRVE, the linesmen who fasten and unfasten sea-going vessels in the port. They have over 40 vessels of the same type in their fleet – all of which run on diesel fuel. If you’re able to convert a single boat for research, you could also do 40 in one go. This would really boost acceleration.’
Floating Lab has a wide range of research opportunities to choose from. Harmen: ‘At the same time, that’s what makes it a challenge. Since we work together with a variety of parties and collect data from multiple sources, the information has a large number of potential owners. But I’ve also seen how Floating Lab can serve as a kind of booster; a conversation starter. The Port of Rotterdam Authority has taken on a unique, trailblazing role with this initiative. The Lab is an international innovation showpiece.’
Ton: ‘Everyone on board has his own specialism and contributes his own added value. I have a background in IT and technology. Harmen is more of a networker who is able to connect with outside parties. We may be very different but we’re all working towards the same goal: a smart port. More than anything, I see Floating Lab as a different way of looking at issues. It’s not a case of or/or, but of and/and. Occasionally this calls for some improvising, but that’s part and parcel of innovation. To maintain our strong port position we need to invest in innovation and the smart port. You have to recruit young people for that kind of thing. And indeed, that’s precisely what we’re doing in Floating Lab through collaborations with educational institutions and start-ups like Captain AI.
I really enjoy supporting and guiding this process. The data we’re collecting can be used to develop valuable new applications. I’ve been working for the Port Authority for 15 years, and things never stand still here. I love the dynamism!’
Rotterdam aims to be the world's smartest port. To maintain our leading position, we need to keep on innovating. Innovation is a crucial means of realising the envisaged changes in energy transition and digitisation in the port of Rotterdam.
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