US start-up SailPlan has recently launched an intelligent navigation platform for ships that is designed to optimise ocean-going voyages and save lives by reducing the number of catastrophic collisions at sea. VPO Global spoke with SailPlan’s founder Jacob Ruytenbeek, an autonomous systems expert and passionate waterman from Florida, to find out how this new technology will change navigation today.
At its core, SailPlan is an intelligent navigation platform that enables any ocean-going vessel and its navigator to better understand its operational environment to avoid collisions and reduce the number of incidents at sea. The platform creates digital twins of both the maritime environment and the vessel and its communications infrastructure, drawing upon data from vessel traffic, buoys, real-time weather, the regulatory environment and information from other ships’ sensors to automatically detect and alert navigators to potential collision risks hours or even days in advance. This offers capabilities far beyond the navigator’s line of sight. The data SailPlan collects is fed to an intelligent assistant onboard the vessel, providing a real-time living situation of the vessel’s surrounding environment, rather than a static representation.
According to Mr Ruytenbeek, compared with traditional AIS or radar-based navigation, SailPlan offers far greater navigational insights. “AIS is highly imperfect. It doesn’t give you a whole lot of time or vision and is limited to a line of sight of around 20 to 25 nautical miles at most,” he explained. Electronic Navigational Charts (ENCs) do not provide comprehensive information about the environment in which the vessel is sailing, compromising the safety of the vessel and its crew.
Instead of these traditional approaches, SailPlan uses the cloud to facilitate route information exchange between two vessels. “Instead of AIS, we use the internet. It’s worked as the basis of modern communication systems and we think it has matured to the point that it’s starting to work well in maritime as satellite-based communications are more deeply penetrated than ever before,” Mr. Ruytenbeek explained to us. Using the cloud in this way has many benefits, for instance, in the event of a vessel losing its GPS signal through a channel and therefore experiencing weakened navigational capabilities, SailPlan can step in and communicate with the surrounding infrastructure, identifying the vessel’s position in relation to surrounding objects.
SailPlan taps into data from sensors (including radar, lidar, electro-optical, wind, acoustic, or any other type of sensor) and cameras already installed onboard the vessel, eliminating the need for additional external sensors. Users are required to install a small server that acts as an integration point, pulling the data from the vessel’s activities and feeding that to SailPlan. Additional sensors can be brought in to increase the capabilities of SailPlan, but they are not essential. SailPlan runs alongside the vessel’s standard navigational system, with all information sent to the bridge and/or shoreside teams and operational centres, enabling all stakeholders to view the same data.
Diving deeper into how SailPlan’s information exchange works, Mr. Ruytenbeek used one scenario to explain more: “If a ship is leaving Southampton and heading towards New York, and another is coming from New York over to Southampton, SailPlan lets you know when you plan your route the other vessels or objects you will be passing. We could identify for you that in four days from now these ships will be passing each other, but perhaps a little too close for comfort. Through our AI system, we can suggest a slight tweak to that route to optimise the voyage and allow it to happen much more safely and efficiently than before.”
In the event of a vessel changing its planned route for any number of reasons, SailPlan provides continuous updates to all vessels that will be near to its new voyage path. “SailPlan establishes a peer-to-peer network of all the vessels, allowing for real-time updates. We push those updates through to the interface, which can be via the bridge or on a tablet. As you re-plan your route, we detect that and we let everybody around you know. It avoids confusion,” Mr. Ruytenbeek explained. One thing important to note is that SailPlan will always let navigators know if another vessel changes its operation, whether that’s speed or route. This is known as conformance monitoring and provides navigators using SailPlan with the confidence that all vessels near to them are operating as they intended. If SailPlan detects any changes in speed or route deviations that could affect another vessel, the system alerts both the navigator of that vessel as well as all other vessels in its vicinity. Mr. Ruytenbeek clarified that to ensure security, the identity of the vessel will remain unknown.
It is not uncommon to see ships stacking up outside ports as they become too full to handle the increase in volume. Ships sat idle in harbours are wasting fuel, emissions and time, and there’s no real reason for them to leave their previous destination only to wait somewhere else. “If you had SailPlan on board it would have forecasted that in 10 days’ time, just as you’re getting into the Port of Long Beach for example, there’ a traffic jam of 70 ships also trying to enter the port. SailPlan’s routing engine can optimise the traffic flow into a port to avoid wasting time waiting for a berth. This gives us a much more effective traffic flow as a whole and on an individual basis for all the ships it helps reduce fuel burn and energy usage and emissions over time.”
SailPlan’s digital twin concept also means that it can be used to monitor the status of various ship components, such as the engine, to deliver information on ship performance and maintenance schedules.
There are three phases of launch currently planned for SailPlan. The first phase is for SailPlan to work as a decision aid navigation augmentation. The second is the continuous collection of data for real-time simulation and route suggestions. This includes integrating information from navigators about their route decisions into SailPlan to help it recommended routes in the future. The third phase will see SailPlan have more integration with the ship, for instance being able to control certain elements such as the engine to optimise ship performance. Mr Ruytenbeek has high hopes that this technology will be fully rolled out within the next 3-4 years.
SailPlan is an open system. “We provide standard weather data from NOAA but you can add your own weather data to our interface, which overrides the default.” Adding to this, Mr Ruytenbeek noted that it is possible for SailPlan to provide alerts or reports around certain conditions the vessel is expected to encounter during its planned voyage (weather for example). The user can input their specific requirements into SailPlan, for example if there is an event they would like to be alerted to within the next 48 hours such as a change in weather, SailPlan will generate an alert when this happens. The idea is that SailPlan can tailor its behaviour through APIs.
El Faro and the inspiration behind SailPlan
While Mr Ruytenbeek is a passionate waterman having grown up in south Florida, he started off working in defence with the US Air Force, helping SpaceX at the time. It was during his time in aviation that he realised the maritime industry was making the same mistakes that aviation had done 10 years prior.
Then in 2015, the catastrophic El Faro incident took place where a navigational error led to the vessel voyaging into a severe hurricane. 33 lives were lost. Mr Ruytenbeek was working to commercialise the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) traffic management system and developing technology to allow multiple drones to fly in a restricted space without collision. This was achieved by enabling the drones to swap routing information so that they could share the space more tightly. As a result of this technology, things like drone delivery could start to happen. Mr Ruytenbeek realised this technology he had been working on to develop for drones could be applied to his passion for the water. He believed he could equip vessels with intelligence to help people make better decisions about how to operate them.
SailPlan officially launched at the end of 2020 but had been testing and trialling the technology with numerous partners prior. One of these partners is Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) which is equipping its fleet with SailPlan to deliver real-time fleet location and health monitoring to MMA’s Shore Control Centre. SailPlan will run alongside MMA’s current navigational systems, providing real world simulations in real-time and historical after action reports. “We’re comparing how SailPlan recommends the voyage versus how the navigator actually planned and executed the voyage.”
SailPlan is also working with a large undisclosed shipping company to determine possible fuel savings, integrating weather, berth availability, traffic flow, and other vessel particulars.
The Virginia-based start-up is currently working on expanding the platform to enable cost calculation of alternative routes. For example, comparing the cost of travelling through an Emission Control Area (ECA), with more expensive fuel, versus navigating a longer but less regulated route where cheaper fuel would be permitted.
Until then, SailPlan will keep focussing on facilitating the infrastructure to help humans navigate safer and more efficient voyages.
 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration