Great Lakes bulker successfully retrofitted for automatic dock-to-dock operation

Written by Nick Blenkey
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The 1979-built MV American Courage has become the largest ship ever capable of performing automated docking and dock-to-dock sailing operations, following retrofitting with the Wärtsilä SmartMove solution for semi-autonomous sailing. [Image © ASC-Rand Holdings LLC]

MV American Courage, a 634 foot, 10 inch long Great Lakes self-unloading bulker, is the largest ship ever to perform automatic dock-to-dock operation. This follows a decision by its owner —American Steamship Company, a subsidiary of Rand-ASC Holdings LLC —to fit the 1979-built ship with Wärtsilä SmartMove solutions for hands-off transit along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio.

The Wärtsilä SmartMove solution for semi-autonomous sailing features advanced sensors and high-accuracy ship control systems that, says Wärtsilä Voyage, effectively take the concept of automated dock-to-dock operations to the next level.

Fully retrofittable, the SmartMove Suite can give existing vessels next-generation capabilities to improve safety, efficiency and productivity on the water. The technology enables navigation officers to perform at a higher level.

The Wärtsilä solution has been successfully tested on the American Courage since March 2020, making it the largest ship ever capable of performing automated docking and dock-to-dock sailing operations. The winding, often narrowing Cuyahoga River can be heavily congested, making it by far the most challenging of shipping routes for any vessel using automated sailing and docking technology.

“American Steamship Company chose to partner with Wärtsilä Voyage based on their ability to bring to bear their diverse subject matter experts into a cohesive team to deliver comprehensive solutions to complex challenges,” says Pierre Pelletreau, vice president of engineering, Rand-ASC Holdings LLC. “The complete Voyage Smart technology package addresses the American Courage’s restricted water maneuvering profile requirements including a position margin of less than two meters and transit under bridges. Wärtsilä adeptly familiarized themselves with our business sensitivities to drive adjustments throughout the project to benefit ASC. One example of this is the versioning of the technology that utilizes the surrounding environment for vessel positioning making it ship-based rather than on shore. The resulting impact was a further reduction of the American Courage’s operating costs.”

“Advanced decision support systems, such as Wärtsilä SmartMove, bring value because they can automate the repetitive tasks, such as docking on repeated itineraries, allowing the navigation officers to focus their bandwidth on the parts of the operation,” says John Marshall, Senior Business Development Manager, Automation & DP; Americas, Wärtsilä Voyage. “This is not about going captain-free, rather, enhancing the capabilities of onboard crew as they traverse shuttle routes, congested or restricted areas. When vessels must operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we are pleased to offer an automated dock-to-dock transit solution that ensures every trip is conducted safely.”

How it works

Wärtsilä Voyage provides a standard hardware setup with redundant controllers and displays, along with a sensor suite (comprising gyro, MRU, wind, and GNSS sensors). This is connected to a single digital platform through which five software products are available: SmartDock, SmartTransit, SmartEntry, SmartPredict, and SmartDrive. The core blocks of software (including controllers, sensor processing, Thruster Allocation Logic and track follow) are sourced from Wärtsilä Voyage’s Dynamic Positioning portfolio, which has been in use over many years in some of the world’s harshest environments.

“To understand the challenges and true innovations of these technologies, you have to grasp the complexities of modern vessels with all of the components conducting specific functions independently. We are effectively making each component ‘smart’ so that the ship itself becomes the sum of the parts and is capable of working as efficiently and smartly as possible. Decades of research and maritime data, multiple unrivaled technologies, real-world testing, engineering, and data have gone into this solution, and we’re pleased to be celebrating a new era of smart navigation together with American Steamship Company,” says Thomas Pedersen, Director, Automation & Dynamic Positioning, Wärtsilä Voyage.

The Wärtsilä SmartDock User Interface was developed using user-centered design principles. [Image © ASC-Rand Holdings LLC]
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