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Thursday, October 8, 2020 

Dutch system integrator RH Marine has reached the first milestone in the Safer Autonomous Systems (SAS) project, a European research project in which the safety of various autonomous systems is being researched.

During sea trials, the company successfully tested a specially developed algorithm that fuses the collected data from the radar and the AIS of the vessel. As a result, objects are automatically detected and collisions can be avoided.

The Safer Autonomous Systems (SAS) project is supported by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020. The research project is led by KU Leuven and involves a number of European universities, institutes and companies. RH Marine was tasked with researching unmanned self-propelled ships due to its experience and expertise in automation, safety and navigation systems. PhD student Tianlei Miao has been working at RH Marine for three years on this project.

RH Marine's aim is to develop automation programs for autonomous sailing and advise customers on the possibility of unmanned self-sailing ships being introduced on a large-scale within 10 years. To make this possible, according to RH Marine consultant Ehab El Amam, we need to look further than just navigation and operating systems. “The engine room must also be fully automated, for example. Monitoring everything remotely and solving problems from shore is essential and vital. Naturally, this has consequences for the design of a ship. These aspects are also included by RH Marine in the development program 'Autonomous sailing',” he said.

The first step to allow ships to sail autonomously from A to B in a safe way is to detect objects and other ships. To do this, a fusion of the data from different sensors is necessary. The algorithm that has been tested with the data collected from sea trial, has fused the logged data from radar and AIS in real time, so that objects are immediately visible and collisions can be avoided. “The most important thing about the test was to demonstrate that the algorithm could log and process all the data fast enough, so that the detection of ships takes place in real time. Otherwise, you will have collisions. And it worked,” said El Amam.

The next step is to connect more sensors to the system, for example cameras, LiDAR laser scanning or sonar. “The problem is that radar and AIS do not detect all objects, especially not smaller ones. By using more different sensors and cleverly fusing their data, a more complete picture is created,” said Miao.

If the algorithm can fuse and analyse all the necessary data, the next step is to learn to recognise, estimate and predict situations (situational awareness). When this is combined with an algorithm that avoids collisions and evades other objects, the ultimate goal comes into view: safe autonomous sailing from A to B without problems at lower operational costs. The simulators and incident database at Dutch maritime research institute MARIN are being employed to test and verify the algorithm.

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