The transfer of aquatic organisms and micro-organisms from their native habits to non-native ones via ships’ hulls is a problem costing the industry up to USD 30 billion each year. A new ship-scrubbing semi-autonomous robot is helping owners and operators to deal with this issue to cut unnecessary fuel consumption and prevent ecological disruption.
Known as biofouling, the issue is one caused by organisms such as plants, animals and micro-organisms latching onto submerged structures and surfaces, including ships’ hulls and being transported many miles across the ocean. Wherever they decide to leave the ship, the area may be, ecologically speaking, completely different to their native environments, which disrupts the natural balance of the ecosystem they have just inhabited. DNV GL’s principal consultant Sarath Raj says he sees, “Increased attention from port authorities who are threatened by risk of invasive aquatic species. Ships can be stopped outside ports and told they have a dirty hull and they need to clean the hull before they can enter. That can be an extremely expensive process.”
What’s more is that biofouling creates an additional layer of resistance across the ship’s surface, increasing a vessel’s fuel consumption and exacerbating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The problems of biofouling today include a 20-30 per cent inefficiency in fuel consumption in shipping, according to Geir Fagerheim, SVP marine operations, Wallenius Wilhelmsen.
Shipowners and operators are under increasing pressure to ensure smooth and resistance-free ship hulls to mitigate the issues of biofouling, but often this is done either in dry-dock, which increases ship downtime, or during port visits.
Robots to rethink hull performance
For the last four years, Norwegian coatings and paint manufacturer Jotun has been quietly working in collaboration with other maritime players to develop a new innovative solution that will address the issues described above.
The solution, which was announced last week during a launch event in Oslo, is called Jotun HullSkating Solutions (HSS) and covers a range of services including:
- Inspection and cleaning via Jotun’s semi-autonomous robot, HullSkater.
- Technical services.
- Proactive condition monitoring.
- Performance and service level guarantees.
According to Jotun, HSS will deliver individual proactive condition monitoring services tailored for each vessel, using a proprietary algorithm and big data to accurately predict fouling development and cleaning schedules.
One of the key offerings as part of Jotun’s HullSkating Solutions package is the semi-autonomous robotic technology that sits permanently onboard a vessel, ready to be deployed for hull cleaning at any given time. This technology is known as HullSkater and was developed in collaboration with Kongsberg.
HullSkater is a piece of technology that operates underwater, in all sorts of harsh and challenging environments, cleaning the surface of the vessel with specially designed motorised brushes that prevent hull surface and paint damage. The HullSkater removes individual bacteria and biofilm before macro-fouling takes hold.
HullSkater features magnetic wheels, the force of which allows the technology to stay attached to the vessel. Each wheel is equipped with electric motors for propulsion and steering and the vehicle is fitted with four digital cameras and sensors to generate high quality film and images that are immediately available to the user. The vehicle also has a self-powered built in drive line to ensure high speed manoeuvring.
The vehicle is connected to the operator’s control centre through an umbilical and can be operated remotely for vessels anywhere in the world with 4G coverage. Inspection and cleaning of the hull will normally take around 2 to 8 hours, depending on size and condition.
As the technology remains onboard the vessel, shipowners and operators can benefit from unlimited idle days, reducing time allocated to hull cleaning which in turn saves costs, improves the ship’s environmental footprint, and increases operational flexibility.
Arne Rinnan, EVP sensors and robotics, Kongsberg says that one of the driving forces behind the innovation was to simplify some of shipping’s complex operations. “We wanted to make complexities simple. It’s just another way of looking at integration,” he explains. “It needs to be reliable and simple for day to day operation.
“We have a series of sensors, which is crucial to get it (HullSkater) to operate in a reliable way. We also are using battery technology and connectivity solutions in the HullSkater, combining the sensors with technology like machine learning.”
Collaboration is the name of the game
To develop the semi-autonomous solution, Jotun consulted a range of companies to join as partners. Geir Axel Oftedahl, business development director at Jotun explains how the paint company collaborated to develop a technology outside their typical range of products.
“Back in 2011 we had some ideas and were opening our minds for future innovations, but we didn’t know about robotics. So, we approached subsea robotics leader Kongsberg, and asked for their advice and if we were crazy to move in this direction.” Fortunately for Jotun, the companies agreed that it was an interesting initiative to pursue.
Jotun’s president and CEO, Morten Fon is grateful to Kongsberg’s president and CEO Geir Haoy for bringing, “knowledge and competence to the table that we do not have.”
Another partner is Wallenius Wilhelmsen, which has been operating with HullSkater for two years. Geir Fagerheim, SVP marine operations at Wallenius admits that initially they were, “slightly sceptical about a paint company coming to us with an advanced technical solution. Could they really make this work in the harshest environments across the world and be remotely operated?”
However, Fagerheim confirms that it has been a success so far for the shipping company. “We see it as a potential game-changer with the way we manage biofouling today. It is a self-sufficient solution so there is no need for interference or action from the office to make this happen. It has helped us to stop overconsumption of fuel and keep emissions down.”
Hans peter Havdal, general manager Norway, Semcon, another one of the partners in the project believes that biofouling is a hardship that has become more and more important. He is a strong believer of partnerships and collaboration to combat such issues and cites it as one of the reasons Semcon decided to join the project. “We need to work together. We need to bring in different companies together and work as a team with different expertise is new way of working to be faster and cost efficient.”
Classification society DNV GL was also involved in the project. Per Marius Berrefjord, SVP strategy and business development at DNV GL says they saw it as an interesting technology to help combat multiple issues shipping is faced with today. “If you look at the bigger picture, shipping needs to reduce GHG emissions and it needs to do it very fast, maybe 2-3x faster than has been the normal way of going.
“We are serious at DNV GL to support activities that can contribute to that. To make it happen we need to work on logistics, the technical management of ships, the technologies to save fuel, especially with the introduction of new fuel types. If you put HullSkater into this picture you can see it is combining new technologies and solutions, can contribute to saving fuel, and is available for newbuilds and retrofits so it can be integrated fast and make an immediate impact.”
For Jotun’s Morten Fon, this project demonstrates the success of collaboration. “We see lots of collaboration across industries and I believe that’s the name of the game for the future. Each company doesn’t have the competencies and knowledge within all areas so we need to find other companies that we can collaborate with to develop these solutions further.”
Arne Rinnan, EVP sensors and robotics at Kongsberg says that this project has the capabilities and capacities to scale to market introduction and support services. “The focus now is to bring this to market with Jotun and make it a success.”
 According to the Clean Shipping Coalition.