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Blog: Predictive Maintenance Supports Autonomous Shipping

Increasing the level of automation is a major trend in shipping, with advanced navigation systems and collision avoidance algorithms currently getting most of the headlines. To achieve business benefits and lifetime cost savings, however, it is equally important to ensure reliable operation of ship machinery and propulsion systemsTraditionally, maintenance of these ship systems has been very reliant on manningreactive maintenance practices and scheduled overhauls. This approach has proved to be sufficient, as the crew has been constantly available to handle repairs and other maintenance tasks on-board. In the future, this may not be the case anymore, as the shift towards remote operated and autonomous vessels proceeds. This will potentially reduce manning and alter the crew tasks – whether they are located on-board the ship or in a remote control centre. 

Predictive maintenance is considered in the Reboot IoT Factory project as a key approach to mitigate the risk of failures as well as to improve the efficiency of industrial operations and the utilization of assetsUntil recently, however, the research in the maritime sector on the implementation and use of predictive maintenance technologies, instead of continuous manning, has been quite rareThus, a pre-study on how to better understand the safety, legal, liability and insurance requirementsas well as the initial business considerations of using predictive maintenance in shipping was conducted in a collaboration between VTT, Åbo Akademi University and Kongsberg Maritime.

New predictive maintenance technologies need to be applied safely. This will require changes in the safety regulations, as well as in development and testing practices.

The maritime safety regulations are set by various actors, such as national flag state authorities, classification societies and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The international and national regulations mostly do not set exact limits for the number of crew members on board, but some changes in the legal framework might be needed, as the idea of autonomous operation is not considered at all in the current regulations. The needed changes in international conventions are currently being studied, but the changes are expected to be very slow. Classification societies have taken an active role and have published some high-level guidelines to support the development of autonomous and remote operated ships. These guidelines are still quite high-level and do not cover many of the technical systems in detail. In practice, the first applications will likely be operated within the national waters of a single country. In such cases, the national authority plays a major role in approving the new technology and in issuing permits for testing activities. A step-wise approach, starting with small vessels operating in a small sea area, can be adopted to mitigate risks in new technology deployment.

The liability and insurance aspects are also just starting to develop, and they are internationally somewhat less harmonized than the safety regulations. The main questions revolve around the changing role of human and understanding who should be liable when an autonomous system makes mistakes. Currently, the liable party is usually the shipowner, but in the future, this may not be quite as clear. Insuring the new technologies would need to start from consideration whether the predictive maintenance is predictable enough to be insured – in the first cases, this might be a challenge as there is no data available from previous installations.

Predictive maintenance is emerging in shipping, with the potential to improve efficiency, generate significant cost savings and create entirely novel business opportunities.

The potential business benefits of predictive maintenance in shipping can be significant. In addition to the reduction of the lifetime operating cost and extending the life of equipment and assets, predictive maintenance solutions can create totally novel opportunities for business activities. Moreover, better predictability of operations will enable more accurate decision-making. In the long term, the development may also lead to changes in the roles of different stakeholders in the maritime business ecosystem and expansion of the industry boundaries by enabling new, agile service providers to enter the market. As next steps in the Reboot IoT Factory project, the potential business models for deploying predictive maintenance solutions will be studied in more detail.

Experts involved in the study:

  • VTT: Eetu Heikkilä, Minna Räikkönen, Pasi Valkokari 
  • Åbo Akademi UniversityHenry Schwartz
  • Kongsberg Maritime: Joni Keski-Rahkonen, Ari Vehanen, Mikko Mattila
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