Category: General

Autonomous freighters?

Automotive companies and research institutes are working under high pressure to develop autonomous and highly automated vehicles. However, the matter of “autonomous driving” is not only a current and relevant one in relation to roads and rails. Autonomous driving also holds great potential for (inland) shipping.

Inland waterway vessels are versatile, efficient, climate-friendly and safe — they are also essential for freight transport. A modern motorized freight vessel can replace between 90 and 150 trucks.

However, accordingly large inland vessels cannot navigate all waterways. They can also only call at destinations that offer appropriate loading facilities and container terminals. On the other hand, inland transport with smaller, more flexible ships is often simply not worthwhile — in part due to a lack of skilled personnel.

On the opportunities and obstacles of automation

Automation can counteract this shortage of skilled labor, make the industry overall more attractive and allow smaller ships to become more competitive. Improved sensor technology and smart choices regarding which routes to take at what speed can save energy and prevent accidents.

What, then, are the obstacles we face in regards to automation in inland waterway transportation? Well, whereas on the road the development of autonomous driving is carried along by vehicle manufacturers, the ship's engine and space have a comparatively long lifespan and thus a significantly longer development cycle. External impetus is needed here to drive innovation forward.

Due to the complex traffic situation of branched waterways, sluice gates, high traffic volume, etc. found in inland waterways compared to the high seas, such assistance systems as they are commonplace on seagoing vessels are hardly ever used on inland waterway vessels.

Autonomous vs. Automated

Although the two terms are often used synonymously, they do not mean the same thing:

Autonomous — Ideally, an "autonomously" operating inland waterway vessel would be able to make trips in a self-determined manner, or at the very least independently and without human intervention. It would be able to participate fully in ongoing traffic, i.e. follow traffic regulations, carry out overtaking maneuvers and sluice gate passages, adapt its route to dynamic conditions and adhere to a schedule.

Automatic/automated — Here, a distinction can be made between several levels of automation, but as a general rule, automated driving plainly refers to propulsion and maneuvering operations. Any interaction with other traffic participants is handled by humans, as is control of the vessel in the event of a failure or malfunction of the automatic control system.

Remotely controlled — A skipper can control the vessel from any location and has power over all operations necessary for control. This method requires a reliable data connection.

Clearly, „autonomous" or "automated" is not synonymous with "unmanned". On board a ship, there are more tasks than just steering the vessel. Additional tasks include inspection, maintenance and repairs. If a ship is unmanned, such tasks would have to be performed either by machines or, after docking, by shore personnel.

The current status of autonomous and automated shipping

The greatest challenge in autonomous and automated shipping is the interpretation of highly complex traffic scenarios and the resulting options for action. This is particularly true in inland waterway transport. Considerations and approaches to solutions for this challenge have been around for a few years. Initial projects are underway, including at the Entwicklungszentrum für Schiffstechnik und Transportsysteme e. V. (Development Center for Ship Technology and Transport Systems) in Duisburg, Germany, with whom we have had a working relationship for several years now. One of their focal points is the research of new developments for inland navigation.

The experimental vessels that have overwhelmingly been used for such projects up until now have always had their limitations regarding their suitability to generate data applicable to real-world environments. Research projects such as ELLA and Smart & Green are intended to change this.

The inland freighter of the future

ELLA is "a model-scale development platform for maneuver automation" (DST). In other words, it is a battery-powered inland vessel model built to a scale of 1:6 and intended for research into highly automated driving on inland waterways. It is suitable for use on canals and lakes. Due to its driving characteristics and hull shape, it should allow the transfer of observations and research results to industrially used inland vessels on a wholly different level than it was possible up until now.

ELLA is meant to plan and execute docking and casting-off maneuvers, as well as sluice gate and bridge passages autonomously. This would make it the world's first inland waterway vessel model capable of fully autonomous operation. It would provide a unique opportunity to collect empirical data in terms of parameters such as environmental recognition, path planning and path tracking that can be transferred to "real" inland waterway vessels.

We are currently in the middle of the construction phase with the aim of delivering ELLA to its future location in the fall of this year and handing it over to the DST ready for operation. In order to enable further experimental setups, ELLA has a modular design and is equipped with all the control elements and operating controls required for inland vessels. These are being developed in parallel with the model’s construction at the University of Duisburg-Essen by the Mechatronics Department. The front and rear hulls of ELLA are each made of glass fiber reinforced plastic (GRP) and complement a steel midship. Individually removable ballast tanks adjust the weight carried.

ELLA's "home port" will probably be the Waltrop lock park, which with the old Henrichenburg ship lift — now the LWL Industrial Museum — will soon not only represent the history and the present of inland navigation, but will also build a bridge to the future with ELLA.

Autonomous driving is possible even under water

ELLA is not the first project of this kind for us, although it is the largest to date. Since 2009, in addition to our own developments, we have been working together with research institutions on innovative projects in connection with special water vehicles. As recently as March of this year, the autonomous water robot DeepLeng built by us for the Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI) in Bremen was successfully tested in the Abisko National Park in Sweden. The long-term goal of the Eurex-Luna project is to explore Jupiter's moon Europa, where water is suspected to be hidden beneath a mile-thick layer of ice. Fascinated, we were able to watch via livestream how DeepLeng mastered its test run.

ELLA is a challenge in many ways. However: not only on the road, but also on the water, the future is electric, autonomous and modular.

Are natural fiber reinforced plastics worth it?

In October 2021, we presented the AquaSpeeder, which we had developed on behalf of a private investor, to the public. However, the project is far from over for us. Even at the beginning of the development phase, the idea to further optimize the due to its electric propeller drive already environmentally friendly AquaSpeeder had been on our minds.

The hull of the AquaSpeeder is built from fiberglass composite using a lightweight construction method — a process in which glass fibers are embedded in a matrix of epoxy resin. They then ensure that the forces that act on it are introduced into the component in a targeted manner. The result is a highly stable yet lightweight hull.

However, glass fibers have the disadvantage that they are neither renewable nor biodegradable — in contrast to natural fibers.

Are natural fibers the solution?

They are, in any case, an alternative that can and should be considered more closely.
As the name suggests, natural fibers are of both animal and plant origin, with the majority of plant fibers used in fiber composites being from plants such as flax, hemp, jute, kenaf, sisal and abaca.

Natural fiber reinforced plastics, or NFRP for short, have so far mainly been used in the automotive industry, e.g. for the interior paneling of doors. They offer high rigidity with low density. In short: they are extremely resilient and light at the same time.

Here's a small density comparison:

Steel — 7.9 g/cc.
Fiberglass — 2.7 g/cc.
Carbon Fiber — 1.8 g/cc.
Flax fiber — 1.4 g/cc.

Since hemp, flax and the like are renewable raw materials that — depending on the plant — can be grown on almost every continent, a constant supply could be guaranteed. They cause less CO2 during production and also bind CO2 from the atmosphere while the plant is growing. Natural fiber reinforced plastics offer good thermal and sound insulation. Up to 100% of the cutting waste that occurs in the processing can be reused.

In addition, resins are now available with 50% of the carbon content derived from plants, which in turn can save 50% of CO2 compared to conventional resins.

Even if you include the post-production processing steps, natural fiber composites have a carbon footprint that is around 50% lower than fiberglass composites.

So, what's the catch?

To put it simply: since flax fibers, for example, offer only one-fifth the tensile strength (force required to hold a weight against gravity) of, for example, carbon fibers and half the tensile strength of glass fibers, a component using flax fibers would need to weigh four times as much as an otherwise identical component made of carbon fibers in order to be equally effective. Same goes for flax fibers compared to glass fibers. Since fibers and resin are used in fiber composites in a 50/50 ratio, using more fibers also means using more resin. This not only worsens the ecological balance, but may even reverse it.

While the pure natural fiber remains CO2-neutral even when needing disposal, components made of fiber composites must be disposed of as special waste regardless of the fiber used due to their plastic content. This usually happens thermally.

Flax fibers (still) cost more than five times as much as glass fibres. Their properties are, on a basic level, similar to those of glass fibers, but cannot replace them one-to-one. In addition, it is a location-dependent natural product that requires particularly targeted quality management in order to cushion fluctuations caused by the climate.

As with so many things, cost matters. The know-how required for the cultivation of hemp, flax and the like is primarily used in the textile industry. Only a few manufacturers produce natural fibers for use in fiber composites. Their fibers are priced accordingly.

A preliminary conclusion

Applied to our example of the AquaSpeeder, the current prices for carbon, glass and natural fibers mean that an otherwise identical component that is made with flax fibers would cost six times as much as one made with glass fibers and would be 20% more expensive than one made with carbon fibers.

We are all aware that eco-friendly materials cost more. As product developers, however, we are confronted with the question of whether natural fibers are (already) worth it from an ecological and economic point of view.

Weight plays an important role in the construction of watercraft, which is why the use of natural fibers for structurally important components is currently not an option for us. But: more and more resins with biodegradable components are becoming available. It is conceivable to use bioresins in combination with natural fibers for structurally unstressed components such as panelling, upper shell and lid?

We would be happy to discuss this as well as to receive input regarding our thesis that, taking into account mutually influential factors such as density, weight, resin content and tensile strength, the use of natural fiber materials is not ecologically and economically worthwhile at the present time. Can you think of any use cases we missed in our considerations?

One year of Innovationswerkstatt: challenges and insights

Exactly one year ago, in November 2020, we ventured into the public arena with the Innovation Workshop. The timing seemed like a great challenge, especially because of the ongoing corona crisis. Now it's time to take stock.

From the beginning, our interest and focus in innovation has been on tangible products and optimizing development and production processes. Thanks to our background in design and product development, it was obvious that we would use this know-how to also support founders and medium-sized companies in particular in getting the best out of their ideas.

On the one hand, this was motivated by the desire to pass on our knowledge to young, motivated people, whom we have had the pleasure of getting to know again and again in the course of semester-long internships over the past few years. On the other hand, we observe the challenge, especially among the medium-sized companies around us, that innovation and innovative products are in demand as they've never been before. However, these companies find themselves in the predicament that innovative product development is a cost factor that represents a financial risk with no guarantee of success. Especially in these current difficult times.

Founding is a trend

And that's a good thing. We need founders with new, fresh ideas. But founders with good ideas also need support in implementing these ideas and making them suitable for series production. Nowadays, there are many aspects, e.g. sustainability and communication, that need to be considered and optimized in product development.

Thanks to our many years of experience in our workshops with a focus on design and development and our collaboration with research institutions, we are able to analyze a product efficiently and start at the right places in terms of optimization. We bring the approach of industry and the flexibility of a small company to the process.

Founders, start-ups and expectations

During 2021, we had the opportunity to test our approach as an Innovation Workshop. The startup scene turned out to be not as we had expected or envisioned. There is a lot of talk about sales and capital and less about what you ultimately want to sell. This is despite the fact that, according to the Deutscher Startup Monitor 2021 , product development comes in second among the major challenges listed by startups - after customer acquisition and before raising capital.

A clear identity is important

Our conclusion from these experiences is that we want to focus more on our industry partners in the future. We have had good experiences with investors who approach us with a product idea and thus found spin-offs from existing companies.

Hinzu kommt, dass wir einen Bedarf sehen, uns von den “Maker Spaces” zu differenzieren, in die Welle derer wir zeitlich geraten sind. Wir sind kein Maker Space und auch keine Coaches für Produktfindung, sondern ein Wirtschaftsunternehmen mit Tagesgeschäft, das bereits vorhandene Produktideen in Sachen Machbarkeit und Fertigung berät und unterstützt bzw. Prototypen anfertigt. Wir unterstützen Gründer und Investoren dabei, Produkte und entwickeln, zu designen und zu optimieren — vorhandenen Ideen und Konzepte vorausgesetzt. Wir werden nicht von einer anderen Einrichtung getragen, sondern organisieren uns selbst, sind für unsere Projekte verantwortlich und nicht involviert im Ringen um Fördergelder. Für gemeinsame Projekte bieten wir den Raum, vor Ort an diesen zu arbeiten.

This clear positioning on the market is something we will take with us from the first year of the Innovation Workshop into the next. Finding and verbalizing our mission statement in such clear terms was perhaps the past year's biggest challenge for us and something we will continue to work on in the future.

We are already looking forward to it.