Remote-controlled sailing through a dock with ‘Josephine’

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DLR research boat "Josephine" in Jarßum harbour - in action for the AMISIA project.



‘Josephine’ sails slowly through Jarßum harbour towards the quay wall. Arne Lamm and Christian Steger from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Institute of Systems Engineering for Future Mobility are on board the research boat, but neither of them has their hand on the steering wheel or throttle. Instead, the eight-metre-long boat is being steered from the shore, where – from a shipping container equipped as a ship’s bridge – DLR’s Matthias Steidel maintains contact with the crew, while research assistant Janusz Piotrowski of the University of Oldenburg controls the boat.

“We’ll take you along the buoys on the starboard side and then sail alongside the quay wall as closely as we can,” Steidel announces over the radio. The screens show real-time images from the cameras on the boat, in addition to data such as the speed, position and movements of the boat’s rudder. Every uncertainty or error that occurs in the test today is positively welcome, as the team is using these real-life trips for the first time to assess the conditions for the AMISIA project.

Keeping silt in suspension

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Matthias Steidel, an information system specialist, heads the project AMISIA.

AMISIA stands for ‘Advanced Port Maintenance: Intelligent, Sustainable, Innovative and Automated Dredging’. Seaports Niedersachsen GmbH, which operates Emden harbour, wants to start using an automated dredger to ensure that the harbour maintains a minimum depth. However, the deposited silt will not be dredged out in Emden as usual. Instead, a recirculation process will be used, in which the silt is sucked in and exposed to the oxygen in the air. As a result, the sediments remain in suspension and the ships can navigate through the suspended particles. In order to prevent the silt particles from settling on the harbour floor again, the dredger needs to keep sailing through the harbour basins continuously and systematically.

That is where AMISIA comes in. The project aims to test innovative technologies for the process, with a view to making costly port maintenance more sustainable, productive and cost-effective in future. Various levels of automation are possible, up to the point of no longer needing a crew on board. DLR is conducting research to determine which automation systems will function with sufficient reliability and safety.

Equipped with cameras and antennas

For the purposes of the research, the recreational craft ‘Josephine’ has been converted into a research vessel, fitted with extra sensors and cameras. Later, when Arne Lamm and Christian Steger return to the berth, the harbour police sail up alongside ‘Josephine’ to make some enquiries. The cameras and antennas on the boat’s roof certainly make it stand out among the other vessels in the harbour. Meanwhile, the researchers in the container also have their reservations about the cameras, albeit for different reasons. The wide-angle lenses make it difficult for the remote-control system to gauge distances and clearances using the video images. The camera transmission freezes momentarily, and the internet connection drops out, so that commands can no longer be transmitted to the boat. “Without a camera image, I don’t have any feedback on what I’m actually doing, and without an internet connection I can’t steer,” says Janusz Piotrowski, who is now staring intently through the window at the research boat. What is more, the movements of the boat, the reactions of the ship’s 250-horsepower engine and the effects of the wind and waves cannot be sensed at the control console on land, so precise remote control is far from easy.

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Janusz Piotrowkis, research assistant, steers the boat from land.

Problems welcome

All four members of today’s test team are information systems specialists. Their links with the maritime world simply come from the fact of living and working in northern Germany. Arne Lamm has a sports boat licence, and his grandfather was a sailor, but this is of only marginal help when it comes to assessing the risks arising from automated systems. The initial test runs have revealed some of the conditions that the AMISIA project needs to take into account for the automated dredger design: “We need an internet connection that is as reliable and extensive as possible, plus additional means of communication in the event of a network failure,” says Project Manager Matthias Steidel. “And we need other sensors that capture distances.” The remote-controlled boat is still too far away from the quay wall, as distances cannot be estimated easily using camera images and positioning data. A greater safety distance than necessary is simply normal human behaviour for a captain on land. ‘Josephine’ sails through the harbour basin at just three knots – around six kilometres per hour.n.

From harbour to desk

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Christian Steger (l.) and Arne Lamm (r.) can take controls on the boat at any time.

Matthias Steidel’s voice can now be heard on the boat itself: “Please navigate to the middle of the harbour basin, and then hand over the controls to us.” Arne Lamm takes his hands off the wheel shortly afterwards. A red button on the right-hand side gives him the option of switching off the remote control at any time and taking charge of the boat himself. There is hardly any shipping traffic in Jarßum harbour, so ‘Josephine’ is unlikely to collide with other vessels. The team makes its circuits until the afternoon and practises steering towards the quay wall from shore and turning towards the buoys, gathering experience all the while. Arne Lamm and Christian Steger then take command of the research boat again and sail back to the berth. Once these test days are over, Josephine will return to her home port in Wilhelmshaven. The shipping container with the simulated ship’s bridge will be transported back to the DLR Institute in Oldenburg, where it will be time for desk-based work and simulations instead of surveying the harbour and going out on test runs.

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The container was converted into a ship's bridge.



The project, which is being jointly conducted by Niedersachsen Ports GmbH, DLR and the maritime engineering service company Mareval AG, will run until the end of September 2024. At the end, a concept will have emerged for a newly designed dredger with digitalised navigation and automated systems to ensure that all ships in the harbour have sufficient water under their keels, while operating safely and with precision. “We will need to test the limits of the system thoroughly to achieve this,” says Matthias Steidel.