Autonomous System for Ships Tested at Antwerp Port

22-01-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, researchers from the University of Antwerp have developed a 3D sonar sensor for ships' autonomous sailing. How does the new sensor work, has the new sensor been tested, and can it help the shipping industry?

Researchers Develop 3D SONAR Sensor

Recently, researchers from the University of Antwerp announced that they have developed a new sensor that will help ships (specifically, those used in shipping of goods), sail autonomously. The sensor itself was developed as part of a larger project, the embedded Real-Time Imaging Sonar project, and recent tests demonstrate the sensor's successful nature.

The sensor itself consists of many waterproof microphones, 32 to be exact, and these are used similarly to SONAR. However, unlike standard SONAR which is 1 dimensional (i.e. the distance between an object and transceiver), the new sensor can help produce a 3D image of the surrounding environment.

Many navigation technologies currently exist, including LiDAR and RADAR, but all of these methods have their own disadvantages. Firstly, LiDAR is most effective against solid objects that can reflect light from the LiDAR system. RADAR is also only effective in conditions that allow for the reflection of radio waves, and atmospheric conditions can worsen LiDAR and RADAR's ability.

SONAR, however, is based on sound. While the sound may not travel as far as RADAR and LiDAR, it has far better-penetrating capabilities in all weather conditions. It can easily be reflected off liquids (such as the sea). Furthermore, SONAR systems are more trivial in design, and therefore more easily weatherproofed, and the lack of moving parts allows them to be fixed in place.

3D SONAR System Gets its Test at Antwerp Port

The development of a sensor is only half of the problem; it must be usable in the real world. Thus, to prove that it can work, researchers fitted their sensors to test vessels, and the results were that the vessels were able to use the sensor to get an accurate picture of their surroundings. These tests' positive results are now enabling a follow-up project, the Smart Docking Innovation Challenge, and Antwerp Port has given the OK for further testing.

What problems would autonomous boats face?

It would seem that everyone wants to make all aspects of life autonomous, and they usually have the same reason; to reduce manual labour. Like an autonomous car, an autonomous ship that can self-navigate in ports would remove the number of needed crew and reduce the overall cost of shipping. Furthermore, autonomous shipping can potentially reduce human error, but is human error such a big concern for the shipping industry?

When developing an autonomous sailing ship, the problems faced by such ships are very different from those faced by autonomous cars. To start, cars have a specific lane and need to be mostly made aware of dangers ahead of them. Ships instead are less likely to have children or other cars suddenly appear in front of them, and thus the need for fast reactions is less than that of autonomous cars.

However, ships have to deal with environments that are arguably more unforgiving. During a calm day, the sea appears to be a peaceful place, but as soon as the wind starts to kick in, waves can unpredictably rock boats, wind can push boats of course, and underwater currents can move a boat without anyone noticing. 

Thus, an autonomous boat will have to consider the very environment itself and make decisions based on wind changes, currents, and waves. Furthermore, autonomous boats may even have to make journey plans ahead of schedule and read data from weather reports to understand their conditions better. 

Boats are also much harder to control than cars due to their sheer weight and response time. If an obstacle is detected ahead, a large shipping boat maybe a mile away, but could find that it won’t be able to stop in time. 

Autonomous boats could lower costs of shipping, improve efficiency at busy ports, and provide technological development of autonomous systems. However, designers must not mistake the sea as an empty space free of consequences; designing an autonomous system may be far harder than you realize.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.