Maersk to Use LiDAR on Containerships to Save Lives at Sea
Big containerships have a big problem – they frequently can’t see other vessels when they come in too close to their bows. The first thing they may know of a potential collision is after they have rammed and sank the other vessel.
Maersk have recently hired the US AI and automation company Sea Machines to get around the problem by installing LiDAR detection systems on some of their newer containerships. Traditionally radar has been used but this has problems. Let’s look at radar first and then the relatively new technology of LiDAR to show why this could save lives at sea.
‘Radar’ stands for ‘Radio Detection and Ranging’. Radar was first invented in the early 1900’s. Radio waves are pinged out and when they hit an object it bounces back. The timing of the radio wave reflection is measured and with modern radar systems a picture can be worked out of an object.
You may have heard of US Air Force ‘stealth fighters’ and bombers. These use materials that absorb and deflect radar signals away from the radar receiver and a whopping great killing machine is reduced to the size of a bird in the eyes of the radar equipment.
Radar loves metal objects and things that conduct electricity like wave tops and rain storms. If there is a radar reflector on a lobster pot, designed to make the object larger on the radar screen, you could be looking at the radar screen puzzling over whether the object is a fishing boat or a lobster pot. To add to the mix, some lobster fishing men have shotguns to protect their gear so it could be hazardous to hit either…
Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) equipment was first developed by the US Military in the 1990’s and is now used in a huge range of disciplines from architecture and surveying, to autonomous vehicles. According to the Sensors Online blog, “The LiDAR instrument emits rapid laser signals, sometimes up to 150,000 pulses per second. The signals bounce back from the obstacles. The sensor positioned on the instrument measures the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. Thus, the instrument can calculate the distance between itself and the obstacle with accuracy. It can also detect the exact size of the object. LiDAR is commonly used to make high-resolution maps.”
If a LiDAR system was fired at a Stealth Bomber it would return the image of a jet flying in to rain death on you, not a bird as radar would. A lobster pot is a lobster pot, and its fisherman owner pointing his firearm at you from his fishing boat would be shown in high resolution as well.
Not a joking matter
While we use levity here, a ship hitting a wooden dhow or fibreglass leisure yacht in the middle of the night can and does cause fatalities on a regular basis – radar doesn’t always ‘see’ them as they don’t conduct electricity as well as metal objects, and in total darkness no one on the bow might either. Once more, if a 300 metre long, 90,000 tonne ship hits a one tonne wooden boat, the crew in the bridge won’t notice the bump and lives can – and are – lost without the people on watch knowing the accident has taken place. The bridge on these ships where all the operations take place are set back a good 200 metres from the bow and you have a stack of containers that can limit the view from the bridge to only seeing a mile in front of the ship, with a blind spot a mile long in front of them. This is why improving sensor technology is absolutely essential.
Maersk picks Sea Machines
Maersk has by far the world’s biggest shipping containership fleet in the world. Safety at sea is something all shipping companies have to deal with. Maersk approached the Boston technology startup Sea Machines to see about using its LiDAR based sensor technology to spot objects ahead of the vessel that cannot always be seen from the bridge situated close to the back of these giant ships.
According to the Sea Machines press release, the “Sea Machines system uses advanced sensors to collect a continuous stream of information from a vessel’s environmental surroundings, identify and track potential conflicts, and efficiently display the knowledge in the wheelhouse. The system facilitates safer and more efficient maritime operations.”
Maersk is to fit the detection systems to its new Ice Class containerships. Hopefully this should lead the same technology to be retrofitted to other vessels around the world. Lives will be saved and that can only be a good thing.
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