DISCOVER Magazine #6

Smart sensor mapping breaks new ground in maritime remote monitoring

Published in category: Innovation
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Damen’s collaboration with Silicon Valley start-up Flicq

From a ship owner’s point of view, the benefits of remote monitoring can be divided into two main areas: increasing efficiency and increasing income. Improving efficiency includes matters such as fuel consumption, crew scheduling and navigation. Increasing income can be thought of in terms of increasing mobilisation. In this way remote monitoring can go a long way to maximise uptime. Taking a tug boat as an example, if an owner can utilise remote monitoring data to carry out just one extra job per day, income will significantly increase.

Damen Digital platform
Damen Digital platform

Understanding the commercial potential of remote monitoring, Damen set up a research project three years ago to look at the various options available. Toine Cleophas, Damen Manager Research, explains: “While there were many solutions available, these were all single solutions that were only able to handle one characteristic; fuel consumption or crewing planning, for example. The subject is made even more complicated by the fact that different equipment suppliers all have their own working methods.”

A unique fingerprint

“We were looking for a more generic system that was more flexible and in tune with the diversity of our clients’ requirements. We hear from our clients that they do not want to have multiple control systems each with their own connections. They want to have one single system that can handle all their data. This wasn’t available at that moment.”

It must also be noted that the subject of remote monitoring is made even more complex by the sheer amount of data involved. A modern engine, for instance, can have up to 4,000 sensor points. Data from about 250 of these go straight to the bridge, with information from about 70 data points being displayed to the captain. “This is just from the engine,” emphasises Toine. “In terms of total capacity of sensors, even a small tug could have up to 2,000 information points. This is a vast amount of information.”

“And don’t forget,” adds Solco Reijnders, Damen Program Manager Innovation. “The raw data that you get from your sensors – making up the data fingerprint of the vessel is unique to every vessel. We wanted to map that fingerprint and translate the data within it.”

Connecting on-board sensors to indicators on dashboards
Connecting on-board sensors to indicators on dashboards

Damen’s search for a uniform data handling solution was not only for its new build vessels, but also for a system that could be retrofitted into existing vessels. “This is a very important aspect because vessels have a lifetime of 25 to 40 years. If we don’t find a solution to bring the current fleet online, then a large part of the world’s fleet will remain offline for the coming decades. But, considering the large of number of existing sensors, it would not be realistic to replace current hardware. We wanted a more software-driven solution, only adding new sensors where needed.”

Thinking out of the box

Looking for an external company to help with such a heavy-weight challenge of optimising remote monitoring data handling, Damen decided to participate in the Vodafone TNW IoT Challenge. Co-founded by Vodafone and TNW (The Next Web), this is a programme set up to enable participants to integrate start-up solutions into their IoT challenges.

This is a practical link between the corporate world and the start-up world,

Solco notes.

Damen’s first step was to define their challenge: “This was based on the current, very labour-intensive, data handling method involving thousands of sensors on a vessel producing hundreds of thousands of lines of data. Our challenge was: how can you use algorithms to automatically identify and translate data from existing ship’s sensors into useful information, adding sensors if necessary to fill in the gaps of current data.” The thinking behind this challenge is Damen’s specific goal to bring both new build and existing vessels online. This includes retrofitting Damen and non-Damen built vessels.

Standard language

Out of an initial list of 60, followed by a short-list of three start-up companies, Damen was put in contact with Flicq: a Silicon Valley start-up company established in 2015. Flicq’s core product is a smart sensor platform especially developed for remote monitoring for the oil and gas, mining, utilities and maritime industries.

The outcome of Damen’s cooperation with Flicq in the Vodafone TNW IoT Challenge generated a solution that could map and process sensor data. “The software tool that we developed with Flicq can automatically gather and categorise data from every sensor on board a vessel,” explains Solco. “What is unique about the system is that it knows which sensor the data comes from – this is data mapping.” This last point is the most significant – and one that will have repercussions for the whole maritime industry. “What this means is that we will create a standard sensor hierarchy language.”

Smart sensors

Turning to the second part of Damen’s initial challenge (adding sensors to fill in data gaps), Flicq’s input also led to additional sensors being installed on Damen vessels. These sensors use a battery-operated remote monitoring system that can be placed anywhere.

“What makes it unique is that our sensors themselves are smart,” explains Flicq Founder and CEO Karthik Rau. “For example, in a traditional system all the data are sent back to the data centre onshore where they are processed and stored. The intelligence is not where the action actually happens, but in the data centre.” Flicq’s smart sensors, on the other hand, do the processing themselves; and so are a lot more selective about what data are sent back.

This has two distinct benefits, Karthik continues: “Battery life is longer, which means you can leave these sensors for longer in remote locations. And you cut down on the costs of bandwidth between the sensor and the data centre.”

“If you look at it from Damen’s point of view there is really no point in an engine temperature sensor sending data back ten times per second saying ‘I am OK, I am at 35 degrees’. What is important is that an alarm is sent when the engine temperature reaches a critical point.”

Karthik goes on to say that, in terms of data transfer, there are serious reductions to be achieved. “We are talking about orders of magnitude. Instead of 2GB per day in raw data from one sensor, it would be 200 bytes of alarms and alerts. Our argument is that clients are not interested in dumb sensors sending a back a lot of irrelevant data. It is so much smarter and more efficient to do the data analysis on the sensor itself.”

Benefits of disruption

The first Flicq systems were installed on a Damen tug in June 2018. Since then systems have been installed on a further 45 different vessels, with 165 ships in the planning for 2019. “This was the first time we have participated in a start-up challenge,” states Solco. “In addition to the organisation by Vodafone, the support and guidance from The Next Web was extremely valuable in accomplishing such a constructive cooperation. They challenged us to make a plan and to make it work – all in a very short and intense period of ten weeks. It has even led to spin-off projects that we are working on together.”

Toine concludes by highlighting the accuracy of the new sensors. “We have a success rate of 95% with Flicq’s input – such disruptive results will be ground-breaking for the maritime industry.”

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