The march of technological innovation continues, and the maritime navigation space is no exception. From reckoning with newer artificial intelligence and augmented reality capabilities to more traditional evolutions of larger multifunction displays and more accurate compasses, the modern mariner might think he is facing a science fiction novel as he peruses a product catalogue.
Pacific Maritime spoke with a number of notable leaders in the maritime navigation technology industry to keep abreast of notable innovations and products on their radars – pun intended.
The challenge for all parties: navigating the boundless imaginations and profit-seeking motives to find the tools mariners actually need to safely go to sea for a living.
Furuno USA is a Camas, Wash.-based mainstay of the marine navigation world with deep roots in the commercial maritime industry.
“We pride ourselves on being a very broadly integrated company. We have almost unquestionably the largest product line in marine electronics,” said National Sales Manager Matt Wood, who has been with Furuno for 22 years after working in the Russia-America joint fisheries. “I’m fond of saying that from one phone call to the next I might go from a $600 fish finder to a $600,000 integrate bridge system. And I don’t really think that’s there’s a single other manufacturer that can do that.”
Amid the artificial intelligence and automation hype of the contemporary tech conversation, Furuno is not neglecting its bread and butter. The company announced new, larger multifunction displays (MFDs) at the Miami International Boat Show in February. The new product line, called TZTouch XL, is expected to include 22-inch and 24-inch MFDs by the end of next year.
“There are many other competitors in the market that have large MFDs and it was time for us to step up, but not just step up to a larger display size, but also some core technologies that others have offered for a while, and then surpass that,” Wood said.
Features of these new MFDs are to be added components of AIS, third party applications and integration of more data sources into the single point of contact.
Wood also teased developments of new hydroacoustic products, building off their successful Omni Sonars, also referred to as scanning sonars.
“We’re working on a refinement on that. It’s a little too early to talk details, but within 2024 we’ll see a couple of new iterations of omni-scanning sonar, and we’re excited about that,”
Furuno is also aboard the AI and augmented reality (AR) trend. The company has a new AR solution called AR100M. The concept is to pull in and essentially project layers of data onto a bridge window. For example, bridge crew could view the outside world with, hypothetically, the AIS information of passing ships displayed as they steam past.
“In many ways it (AR) is a very fast moving, very experimental field,” Wood said.
Wood and Furuno USA have a balanced approach to the conversation.
“We want all the bells and whistles; we want all the flash and sizzle and sexiness of new products and new technology,” Wood stated. “But we—what’s the saying? —slow is smooth, smooth is fast. We generally don’t do anything quickly, but we do it right.”
In addition to the new tech, Furuno USA has internally conducted its first major price revision in about 30 years. According to Wood, a surprise benefit of this repricing of their products last February was many price reductions to the end user.
Advanced Navigation is an Australia-based AI robotics and navigation technologies company with applications that include marine and subsea. The company was founded by Xavier Orr who, while completing his PhD in computer science, studied the application of AI-based neural networks to traditional navigation solutions.
The software algorithm that emerged was the beginning of the company that now also produces hardware. The company focuses on AI-based navigation solutions, maritime and robotics.
“Very quickly that algorithm got deployed in multiple fields,” said Pete Baker, a senior product manager for Subsea Navigation, which is a subset of Advanced Navigation. “I think as we move more towards autonomous and uncrewed platforms, safety is obviously a major issue and having redundancy in your navigation solution and having a high level of confidence in it becomes more and more important.”
The pitch is that a robust AI algorithm is adept at handling varied and large data sources in changing conditions. Baker said that on a vessel, a motion sensor’s data can be better interpreted and presented by a good AI algorithm to a skipper for more accurate pitch, roll and yawl information.
For instance, in a dynamic situation, an abnormal temperature change from an opened vent may present the wheelhouse with confusing information. But an AI-algorithm may readily identify the situation and more accurately present it to the bridge.
“You’re in the vessel and you have these rapid changes, you can still provide a high level of confidence in that nav solution,” Baker explained.
Beyond the company’s AI algorithm efforts, its fiberoptic gyro-compass is reportedly the first of its kind on the market. A laser is spun around the gyroscope via fiber optics and digital interferometry is used to extract more information out of the compass. Not only is this process supposed to provide optimum performance, but it also lends itself to miniaturization making the compass unit smaller and more ergonomic than ever.
Baker, who in his 20s spent more than a decade at sea as a hydrographic surveyor, sees advancements in AI and high performance and miniaturized navigation hardware as key components to growing autonomous systems and the offshore wind markets.
“If you think about traditional oil and gas … you might have, say, seven or eight wellheads on the seabed and they’ll connect to a central manifold, and you’ll have a pipeline taking that to shore. So, the actual interface of steel and structures that are made by humans that touch the seabed is not actually that big,” Baker said.
When compared to a windfarm with 1,000 turbines, the interface between manmade objects and the seabed are orders of magnitude bigger. The demands for high accuracy in installation and maintenance are also much greater.
Baker hopes that smarter, smaller, higher performing navigation solutions lower the barrier of entry to maritime professionals of all kinds.
“Maritime sector can be a little bit slow to adopt technology and there’s good reason for that,” he remarked. “You always want the tried and true because when you’re heading out to sea and you’ve got a long way before you see the next port, you want to use what’s reliable.”
Orca AI is an Israel-based startup founded in 2018 by Israeli Navy veterans Yarden Gross and Dor Raviv.
“With over 4,000 incidents occurring in maritime every year, we were inspired to explore how we could leverage autonomous technology to make the industry not only safer, but also more efficient,” Gross said in a statement. “We wanted to introduce AI that could aid navigation, avoid collisions and empower and support crews on a daily basis to make better decisions whilst keeping up with the huge demand that comes with being part of the global supply chain.”
Orca AI’s technology focuses upon automated situational awareness as a layer of safety redundance to human-powered crews. Their flagship product is the SeaPod lookout unit that is touted as an automated watchkeeper for the bridge. The SeaPod utilizes a highly sensitive camera array for touted “superhuman” situational awareness.
The company’s office product, FleetView, allows fleet managers and operators to have a better understanding of their vessels’ performance and to easily identify undesired behaviors. It provides actionable insights into close encounters, sharp maneuvers, speed drops and other operational metrics that impact fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
Currently, the platform is installed on 100 ships with another 500 booked for installation. The company says it has collected more than 20 million nautical miles of data representing the world’s largest visual database of the oceans. The company has worked with partners such as Maran Tankers, ARC, Liberty, TMS and NYK.
ABB is an international technology leader in its four areas of concentration —electrification, motion, process automation and robotics and discrete automation. ABB Marine and Ports creates technology solutions across large vessel types. AI and automation are major focuses of the company.
“Today, autonomous technologies have reached a stage where it is not only feasible but very helpful to apply them to ships, to assist the crew in their jobs on board, and ensure safer, more efficient and thereby more sustainable operations,” ABB said in a statement.
Dynamic positioning (DP2) functionality was added to ABB Ability Marine Pilot Control in 2019, allowing joystick control for maneuvering at all times, including around the berth. Featuring model predictive control, the pilot control’s maneuvering capability is built around predicting where the vessel will be in five to 30 seconds instead of measuring its position on arrival.
Software calculates the optimum way of executing decisions across the operational profile, depending on how the operator has prioritized speed, maneuverability or other parameters.
The company has said it thinks this level of dynamic positioning redundancy and capability is going to be crucial for the burgeoning offshore wind industry.
ABB sees industry interest in applications of partial autonomous solutions to support crew in the short distance shipping sector of ferries, tugs or even cruises and transport vessels. There’s a general understanding that there are still a number of operational unknowns regarding crew acceptance, and regulatory barriers to be solved before a higher level of automation becomes common on a wide scale.
Fully autonomous operations for navigation functions, with humans cut “out from the loop is not really a focus in the industry at the moment,” ABB stated.
Notably in 2022, digital technologies from ABB enabled the harbor tug MAJU 510 to become the first vessel in the world to receive Autonomous and Remote-Control Navigation Notation from the ABS classification society. It was also the first Singapore-flagged vessel to receive the Smart (Autonomous) Notation from the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore.
The notations acknowledge the performance of the tug in trials at Raffles Reserved Anchorage, off Singapore Island, in March 2022 where the vessel demonstrated automated situational awareness, collision avoidance and maneuvering control provided by ABB Ability Marine Pilot Vision and Marine Pilot Control.
Norris Comer is a Seattle-based writer and author. His debut memoir, Salmon in the Seine: Alaskan Memories of Life, Death, & Everything In-Between is now available wherever books are sold. You can find him on Substack, Instagram and at norriscomer.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.