SWARMS OF DRONES AND DRONESHIPS

Beyond Vision Aerial points out the world is already well on its way to a day when swarms of innumerable autonomous cars and drones buzz about, shuffling commuters to work and packages to doorsteps.  But this dramatic-sounding reality raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Who will control the swarm? Some say control will be distributed. Each car and every drone will be its own self-sustaining unit – individually aware of its surroundings, individually directed where to go and individually outfitted with all the computational power to make it through the world efficiently and without accident.

Select Maritime points out the Houston-based classification society ABS has joined the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance to work with industry partners, including class organizations, shipyards, equipment manufacturers and designers to advance droneships. The design will integrate features of independent decision-making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception and remote control.

“Increased digitization, advanced technologies and new levels of connectivity are changing the way the maritime industry operates,” Eric Kleess, ABS Greater China Division President, told us.

“In the coming years, we will see significant changes in the way ships are designed and built, with a strong drive to develop autonomous vessels especially in China. As a key member of this alliance, ABS is aligned closely with industry to support safer and more sustainable maritime operations,” Kleess added.

 


 

Beyond Vision Aerial believes device swarms will be managed centrally, using applications running in large data centers, much the way the cloud centralized big data.  This has the potential to change how society functions on a daily basis.

While most current research into autonomous vehicles assumes a distributed model – relatively autonomous devices, controlled in a peer-to-peer fashion with each machine doing its own calculations – the concentrated model has its advantages.

First is the ease of creating applications. Writing applications for the distributed model is very difficult, since each device has limited information about the state of the world. With the centralized approach, data from all the devices is collected in one place. This provides a big-picture view of the world that allows better control of higher-level tasks like system-wide situational perception, decision-making and large-scale traffic planning.

Second, control applications running in datacenters have many more resources available, such as computing horsepower and large back-end datasets. This allows them to implement more sophisticated collaborative behaviors for the device swarm. In addition, the centralized applications can take advantage of powerful machine learning algorithms, which allow the control system to learn and improve its behavior.

An added challenge of the distributed model that centralization solves is that computational limitations in the devices themselves hinder overall system sophistication, an issue that becomes ever-more pronounced as scale increases. As new technologies arise, they either must be retrofitted into each device, or, when the old devices become obsolete, the devices must be replaced – an expensive proposition.

In the centralized model, the vehicle is merely a tool – a relatively dumb device fitted with equipment by which to see the road and the skies ahead, to detect obstacles and other vehicles in the way, to provide geolocation and so forth. The gathered data gets transferred back to the cloud and processed en masse by much faster computers able to handle the mathematical demand of keeping track of those millions of vehicles and to plan ways around bottlenecks and hazards to efficiently and safely guide passengers and packages to their many destinations.

Select Maritime notes the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance, chaired by HNA Technology Group Co, Ltd., was formed with nine members, including ABS, CCS, China Ship Research & Development Institute, Shanghai Marine Diesel Engine Research Institute, Ltd, Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding (Group) Co., Ltd, Marine Design Research Institute of China (MARIC), Rolls-Royce, and Wartsila.

The digital transformation of assets and information flows is one of the greatest changes in shipping, spurring automation of existing processes and functions and positively impacting upon safety and environmental performance. Ships are becoming sophisticated sensor hubs and data generators, and advances in satellite communications are improving ship connectivity, allowing for a massive increase in the volumes of data transferred at ever-lower cost.

New digital solutions will provide better control over the status of degradable systems, increase situational awareness and human reliability, and provide support in the definition of corrective actions and the reduction of operational risk. Improvements in maritime connectivity will also bring many benefits to the whole transport sector. For example, supply chains can be more efficiently organized around adaptable operations that leverage timely information on cargo, routes, and the operation and condition of assets. This will improve efficiency in many ways, including reducing lead times and fuel consumption by optimizing arrival times, while also allowing a better organization of operations and workforces on land for handling cargo and carrying out possible maintenance and/or inspection activities.

Onshore, new cloud technologies, such as big data platforms and digital twin technologies, will have a dramatic effect on how the industry manages information, and how vessels and their components are designed, built, and tested – all of which will see new digital business models emerging. Advanced software and simulation capabilities will result in more complex systems being controlled by software, while near real-time evaluation possibilities will be available, accompanied by suggestions for corrective actions by the crew and providing supply chain management decision support. Increased automation and availability of high-reliability, software-controlled, cyber-physical systems will allow for advances in automation and remotely controlled operations.

From an industry perspective, the smart use of data will help significantly to increase efficiency and improve safety as well as the environmental footprint. With ships and mobile offshore units becoming increasingly connected and reliant on software-dependent systems, cyber security emerges as a key property needing attention in order to control operational and safety risks. Both unforeseen system issues and the human element present significant challenges to our industry. For example, how do we train more than a million seafarers to correctly use all the systems we provide them with? How do we secure that they continue to have ownership of the data, of what happens on board? And then there is a data management issue: can the quality of the data that we increasingly base decisions on be assured? How will larger and larger data volumes be prepared, stored, accessed and protected?

Maintaining the integrity and resilience of critical cyber-physical systems therefore requires a holistic approach to both safety and security. Owners and operators are now seriously contemplating third-party verification of their assets’ cyber security, whether during new build construction or for vessels in operation. This is an area where we foresee increased demand over the next few years as the industry gains awareness of the vulnerabilities and related cyber threats to their business.

The alliance officially launched at the end of June and expects to deliver the unmanned cargo ship by October 2021. “Through this collaborative effort, we will apply the latest technologies to develop a new autonomous ship concept,” Li Weijian, HNA Technology Group Vice Chairman, told us.

“The newly formed alliance is advancing new innovations in ship design and operations, and also working to promote the safe adoption of these assets in the market,” Weijian said.

From a technology standpoint, it is attractive and easiest to centralize control – to amass data, plan and then disseminate a singular view to all devices. Not all functions are suited to the centralized model, however. Beyond Vision Aerial foresees that devices will retain local control for things like device stability and near-term collision avoidance. Such control needs microsecond or sub-millisecond response time and must happen on the device.

The implications of a centralized system reach beyond easier commutes. One prime example is in disaster recovery. In a community devastated by earthquake, fire or flood, it often proves too dangerous for human first responders. In such cases, a flock of autonomous drones could be dispatched to assess the situation, allowing emergency management to triage from afar.

Another example would be a massive warehouse where 10,000 or more drones operate indoors, in a closed environment all watched over by cameras and sensors to monitor, organize and move millions of packages each day. Much of the infrastructure does not yet exist. The range of computational and communication capabilities necessary to pull it off is staggering – GPS, mapping, wireless communications, situational awareness and traffic coordination are only the most obvious components.

Another challenge is to provide a massive amount of computing with extremely low and predictable latency. That means leveraging new machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to ensure planning and control happen fast without data inference. None of this deters Beyond Vision Aerial. With pieces of the puzzle still in flux, the mission is to imagine how this centralized future might function and to determine what pieces exist, which need to be improved and what others are yet to be created to make it all function seamlessly. 

Deeper down in the platform, Beyond Vision Aerial foresees the need for things like new hardware accelerators, better ways for computers to manage the many computing threads occurring simultaneously, rapid data storage and retrieval, and improved cluster scheduling necessary to execute the massive number of computations centralized control will demand. And, of course, security will be a preeminent concern. Most of these things must still be created, but simply knowing the need is a first step to realizing the vision.

Select Maritime is the leader in canal transits. For more information,  please refer to www.selectmaritime.gr

Beyond Vision Aerial leads the digitalization of shipping, innovation of droneships, and drone aerial videography. For more information, please refer to www.bvaerial.com

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