Friday, March 1, 2013

Freight and Passenger Ships Can Now Avoid That Sinking Feeling (and a Fish that seeks out Pollution)

New Technology Can Prove a Lifesaver for Foundering Vessels Whilst Shoals of Robots Comb the Seas
Shipping News Feature

EUROPE – WORLDWIDE – The host of photographs posted on the internet for the arrival of the giant cranes built and delivered by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company (ZPMC) to the new container shipping port on the Thames prompted a heated discussion in the Handy Shipping Guide Offices regarding the safety of moving such tall, top heavy pieces as ocean cargo and the implications, for safe passage, unloading, insurance etc. It brought to mind recent developments, unveiled last week, of the sea trials on a system being designed over the past couple of years to prevent vessels sinking or to recover ships which had foundered.

The pan-European SuSy (Surfacing System for Ship Recovery) consortium, which consists of nine companies spread across the continent, has been undertaking the trials at the Chalkis shipyard in Greece and has so far successfully tested two modes of deployment: Firstly, ‘Internal’ where balloons installed in protective covers within the double-bottomed test compartment were inflated, keeping it afloat until repairs or other emergency measures are implemented. Secondly, ‘Salvage’ where external balloons and gas generator packs were attached, providing support sub-surface and allowing the test compartment to be recovered to the surface.

SuSy utilises Kevlar reinforced balloons that can be rapidly deployed and inflated to provide extra buoyancy. The consortium has also developed a third concept using rapidly deployable internal balloons to create curtains which prevent capsize of roll on roll off passenger vessels by sub-dividing the car deck stopping water movement. Simulations have been conducted but this system has not been subject to live tests. By counteracting the effects of water ingress and preventing damaged or unstable ships from sinking, the technology could help minimise the risk of major loss of life at sea.

The SuSy project is funded by the EU’s FP7 Framework for Research and Technological Development and the BMT Group has taken a lead role in the project and the envisaged scenarios where the systems could be usefully deployed include preventive installation on ships with hazardous cargo, rapid stabilization of capsized ships by coast guard and other rescue squads and recovery of sunken ships, as well as many other applications in this field. Rory Doyle, Senior Research Scientist at BMT Group commented:

“The potential environmental, safety and financial benefits of SuSy are enormous, providing us with the first practical tools to stabilise or resurface ships in an emergency.”

And so to those ‘fish’, BMT is also managing another European project that has successfully developed and delivered intelligent robotic fish capable of working together in order to monitor and search for pollution in ports and other aquatic areas.

Traditional methods of monitoring pollution involve obtaining samples to be sent to a lab for testing; the whole process takes time and makes real-time pollution information far from a reality. The SHOAL project will make this process real-time by using autonomously controlled fish to perform tests in-situ. The life-like creatures, which mimic the undulating movement of real fish, are equipped with tiny chemical sensors to find the source of potentially hazardous pollutants in the water, such as leaks from vessels in the port or underwater pipelines. The fish communicate with each other using ultrasonic’s and information is transmitted to the port's control centre via Wi-Fi from the "charging hub" where the fish can charge their batteries. This will enable the authorities to map in real time the source and scale of the pollution.

Unlike previous robotic fish that work with remote controls, these have autonomous navigation capabilities, enabling them to swim independently around the port without any human interaction. This also enables them to return automatically to their hub to be recharged when battery life (approximately eight hours) is low. Using robotic fish builds on a design created by hundreds of millions of years' worth of evolution which is incredibly energy efficient. This efficiency is something that is needed to ensure that the underwater environment can be navigated for hours on end.

The five carp like fish are being built by Professor Huosheng Hu and his robotics team at the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, University of Essex and tested in the port of Gijon in northern Spain as part of the three-year research project funded by the European Commission. The fish, which cost around £20,000 to make, are roughly the size of a seal at one and a half metres long and capable of swimming at a maximum speed of about three and a half kilometres per hour.

For a BBC Video outlining the capabilities of this remarkable scheme click HERE. Photo: SuSy Internal Balloon installed in double bottomed test compartment.