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VTT develops new solutions for testing autonomous ship navigation systems


VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is developing safe steering for the remote-monitored and controlled autonomous ships of the future. A simulation environment in which the autonomous navigation systems can be tested and validated has been developed as a part of this on-going work.

The ships of the future will largely be controlled by artificial intelligence. However, these autonomous unmanned vessels must be monitored and controlled on demand by land-based professionals. This trend sets new challenges also for autonomous ship navigation systems, which must be able to control ships in various situations.

"VTT has deep knowledge of autonomous ship research concerning especially reliability and safety topics. Related to these topics, we have established a simulation environment in which autonomous navigation systems can be tested and developed in as realistic conditions as possible," says Jussi Martio, a Senior Scientist at VTT. The autonomous ship navigation requires a specific autopilot, which is used to control a moving vessel, including during evasive manoeuvres according to International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).

Validation environment in VTT shiphandling simulator

VTT's simulation environment is designed for testing of various autonomous ship navigation systems. During the development of this environment, VTT has introduced a research tool called Apilot which can manoeuvre an autonomous vessel in the simulator. Apilot can be utilized in future to navigate the traffic vessels during the simulation scenarios. The Apilot autopilot under development by VTT has three modes: track, heading and slow joystick control e.g. for docking situations.

In the 'track mode', Apilot steers the ship along a previously agreed route. If the ship detects another vessel, which must be avoided, the autopilot switches to 'heading mode'. This enables Apilot to avoid the other vessel with a small change in the ship's heading. Autopilot returns to track mode after the other vessel has been avoided.

In the 'joystick mode', control and propulsion equipment are adjusted to low speeds manoeuvrings. Apilot puts the ship into the desired operating mode, for example to manoeuvre sideways into a dock.

In all situations, the autopilot ensures that the ship remains within a set distance from the planned route. If the limits in question are exceeded, the autopilot gives a warning and remote control must be taken of the ship.

User-oriented navigation

Human factors must be taken of account when designing the remote monitoring and control systems of vessels. VTT has studied interaction between humans and technology in maritime transport and has developed new concepts for the bridges and remote shore control centres of the autonomous ships of the future. In such design activities, the aim is to make operations more safe, efficient and comfortable by seeking new solutions that enhance operating methods, as well as the usability and user experience of technologies.


Demo: control room for an autonomous ship

 Ship simulator

Updated 27th June 2017: specifications for dervice description