An automated future for dredging

Satcom networks are pursuing options in the Arctic, with Ku-Band and Ka-Band VSAT offerings to dredging operators in the region. Credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus

Dredging’s precise and predictable form of operations, often carried out relatively close to the shore, make them ripe for automation, with satellite coverage paving the way for wider take-up of broadband

Dredging usually takes place near shore and can generally make use of 3G and 4G broadband internet infrastructures, which reaches a short way out to sea. This has made the task of exchanging large volumes of data between vessel and shore fairly straightforward in many operations. In particular, the subject of connectivity is becoming intrinsically intertwined with a new, but indisputably incoming trend in the dredging segment – indeed, ahead of a large swathe of the maritime industry – that of automation.

Situations that require an all hands-on deck are rare during dredging operations because most of the time, a vessel is travelling up and down a designated area of seabed. However, for proponents seeking to automate the maritime industry, this type of repetitive but precise pathfinding seems like a good place to start.

In fact, there are a few types of vessels that already operate, fully automated, in a similar fashion. For example, Echodrone, an autonomous twin-hulled drone at the Port of Antwerp. It runs surveys to keep track of siltation levels washed in by the Scheldt river at the port’s Durganckdok lock. As part of its operation, Echodrone reports to a cloud system which plots the route. Occasionally, an engineer will cast an eye over it to ensure all is well. On this small scale, automation was straightforward to organise.

Data download

However, orchestrating an automated dredging operation at longer distances from shore, with a wider diameter of working area, and with an enormous vessel is something more of a challenge. A dredging operation requires a massive transfer of data from vessel to shore to ensure success, even when using so-called edge-computing—when a large portion of the necessary calculations is done on the vessel itself.

In 2018, Cobham Satcom equipped 16 dredgers owned by China’s CCCC Dredging Company (CDC) each with a Sailor 900 VSAT installation . Each dish, measuring 1 m in diameter, would bring online Ku- and Ka-bands – the highest frequency and highest throughput non-military satellite wavelength currently available, capable of massive volumes of data transfer.

In the event of rain fade, an interference that Ka-band signals are susceptible to in such weather, the Cobham device would switch to the Ku-band as a backup signal. While the Ku-band uses longer wavelengths and is more stable, it does produce a somewhat lower throughput.

CDC asserted that this new high-throughput satcom regime will assist in their ongoing efforts to digitalise, and crucially, to automate the job of their dredgers. In fact, the contract between CDC and Cobham was agreed after CDC accepted delivery of a new dredger: Tian Kun Hao. Also known as Magic Island Maker, the vessel boasts an automated control system that allows it to perform its tasks without input from crew and is said to be able to dredge material up to 6,000 m3 per hour.

At the time, Cobham Satcom’s general manager of the China office, Cheng-Yu Tang, told the press, “The dredging sector has been cautious in embracing digitalisation, but the enhanced onboard communications delivered to CCCC by the Sailor 900 VSAT paves the way for real-time monitoring, higher-precision modelling, and potential for extended remote operations.”

The move towards improved satellite communications (satcom) and data transfer as well as automation could be regarded as a bellwether for things to come; crucially, they have a role in China’s plans for dredging under the country’s Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. While China is increasing its extent and scope of dredging contracts for the BRI, Russia is also doing the same, albeit much of this work is along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic.

Expanded coverage

One of these contracts involves Yuri Maslyukov, a trailing suction hopper dredger (TSHD) based on Damen Shipyards’ TSHD 2000 design, which was built by Onezhsky Shipyard. The vessel will leave for the NSR, where it will be operated by Russian dredging company Rosmorport. “Building of a new dredger is an important contribution to the development of the Northern Sea Route and Arctic region. Yuri Masluykov is designed to operate in the harsh northern climate, so it would secure optimal navigation depth in several Arctic seaports,” Rosmorport issued a statement in late 2019.

Each of the TSHD 2000-designed dredgers is capable of operating in ice and at temperatures of -30° C. Yuri Maslyukov will join sister vessels Severniya Dvina and Beloye Morye, which were built by Damen Shipyards. The dredger has commenced operations in the Kaliningrad shipping channel, where it and its sister vessels, as well as the hopper dredger Kronshlot, will excavate some 1.3 million m3 of material over the course of 2020.

Rosatom, a state-owned enterprise that operates an icebreaking fleet, has asserted that the dredgers will need to remove nearly 26 million m3 of material along the NSR, if it is to handle a growth in shipping. The yardstick for success in terms of tonnage increases, Rosatom indicated, was 80 million tonnes. Dredging at the Port of Sabetta alone – a key NSR port – would amount to some USD200 million, and overall NSR development is expected to come to around USD11.4 billion between now and 2024.

For the dredgers operating in this region, connectivity options would be extremely limited compared to elsewhere around the world. However, a growing number of satcom networks are interested in providing high-throughput Ku- and Ka-band very-small-aperture terminals (VSATs) for operators in the Arctic. Similarly, more satcom companies are developing the capability of bringing higher volumes of data transfer on other bands to work in the Arctic, bringing with it a great many operational data possibilities in the dredging and offshore markets there. Such activity will also support the merchant vessels, which Russia anticipates will be travelling through on a regular basis.

The lack of options in the Arctic is typified by the recent case of Inmarsat and Iridium. In December 2019, Iridium was awarded the right to contribute to the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) network by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), after Inmarsat had monopolised the service since its inception.

The International Mobile Satellite Organisation (IMSO), which serves as the IMO’s regulatory arm, formally presented a letter of compliance to the CEO of Iridium on 13 January 2020. GMDSS is governed by the C-Band – a relatively low-tech, low-frequency, and long-wavelength workhorse – which allows signals to travel through cloud cover and precipitation.

Sabetta Port, Russia. Dredgers operating in the Arctic will benefit from satellite connectivity following a decision to allow Iridium to contribute to the GMDSS. Credit: Shutterstock/MikhailSS

Alternative option

Prior to becoming part of the GMDSS network, Iridium had to prove that it could provide a signal deep into the Arctic and Antarctica regions – referred to in satcoms terminology as Sea Area A4. These are two of the hardest places to provide satellite coverage, as satellites generally launch on an equatorial plane rather than into a longitudinal or polar orbit. Now though, the GMDSS has two satellite companies supporting it, thus making internet connectivity in the Arctic much more straightforward.

Captain Moin Ahmed, director general of IMSO, upon presenting the letter of compliance letter to Iridium, said, “Recognition of Iridium marks the start of a new era in GMDSS and enhances the integrity and global coverage of safety services for seafarers across the world, including in the polar regions.”

Iridium CEO Matt Desch added, “The maritime industry is recognising that our network possesses the unique ability to make GMDSS an even more robust system and extend its coverage to the entire planet.”

This is good news for satcom integrator Marlink, which packages up connections to satellite networks that are in range in order to seamlessly transition between them, providing the user with a continuous connection. This has enabled some of the markets, such as expedition cruising, to make entire voyages with the highest throughput of data and without losing signal.

Last year, Marlink reported that a number of vessels equipped with its VSAT equipment successfully sailed along the 900-mile (1,448 km) North West Passage route with a continuous Ku-Band connection. “The adventure cruise market … has come to exemplify the demand for high-speed, high-quality internet services in even the most uncharted corners of the globe,” Tore Morten Olsen, Marlink Maritime president, said in September 2019.

Asia connectivity

In early March 2020, Marlink signed a fixed-term contract with Dutch dredging company Van Oord to provide satcom capacity to its vessels travelling throughout Indian waters. Indian law prevents satcom connectivity around its territorial waters, unless such connectivity was purchased through a local licensed provider. However, the deal between Indian in-flight maritime connectivity service company Nelco and Marlink made it possible for Van Oord to operate in these waters.

The move has allowed TSHD Volvox Asia, used for testing the Marlink service, to operate its VSAT system in Indian waters, where this previously would have been restricted by law. With the Nelco deal though, Van Oord could operate in these waters without restrictions and enjoy uninterrupted access to data transfer and mission-critical communications.

“Van Oord has been a Marlink customer for more than 15 years and this new agreement extends our ability to stay connected and in compliance within Indian waters,” a spokesperson for Van Oord said on 4 March. “Marlink’s VSAT connectivity enables us to work smarter and safely while in a highly regulated area, so we can continue to monitor asset health and performance, comply with regulatory reporting, and keep crew connected.”

“We keep Van Oord vessels connected all over the world and we’re delighted that through our association with Nelco we are able to do the same within Indian waters,” Olsen said regarding the contract with Van Oord. “Our agreement means that we can provide the best connections for Van Oord to support the cleanest, greenest, and most efficient operations.”

Reducing crew

TSHD Anchorage was launched from Thecla Bodewes Shipyard in the Netherlands, in January 2020, after the hull was towed there from Barkmeijer Shipyards in Stroobos in April 2019 for outfitting. Measuring 106 m, the dredger can accommodate up to 14 crew members and is said to be able to remove 3,000 m³ of material. It is also equipped with a smart diesel-electric system, which automates and continuously optimises the energy usage on board the vessel. Jointly developed between Barkmeijer Shipyards and D&A Electric, the system improves energy expenditure during dredging, and in sailing and unloading modes.

The dredger will be used to extract sand and gravel at sea, sifting the one from the other and removing the water so the cargoes can be unloaded dry onto shore.
Anchorage is an ideal of what can be achieved by combining and properly utilising connectivity and automation. The dredger featured an intelligent automation system that could allow it to function with a small crew, as few as seven on board.

Automation requires a considerable step-up in the amount of data that must be sent from vessel to shore, displacing decisions made by crew members on board with systems designed to equip shore-based teams with the information they require to make decisions.

As more capacity is made available, more data exchange will enable better fine-tuning of vessel behaviour to save fuel. Satcom capacity is being increased even on vessels whose shipowners plan to cut down on their crew contingent, thereby reducing the mandatory crew welfare data requirement.

With 4G, and eventually 5G, using an internet connection makes dredging tasks easier, at least with operations close to shore. Satcom companies have made leaps and bounds within the dredging sector, they have also demonstrated they can carry the additional weight.