A satellite link over 5,000 miles allowed operators in California to remotely navigate a platform supply vessel in the North Sea near Scotland during an Aug. 21 test, according to the maritime technology group Wärtsilä.

GulfMark Offshore’s 261’x55’x20’ PSV Highland Chieftain was driven in a four-hour series of low- and high-speed maneuvers using a combination of Dynamic Positioning (DP) and manual joystick control, with the inputs coming from the Wärtsilä office in San Diego. The company’s DP unit developed remote control capabilities in early 2016, but this was the first test carried out on an offshore vessel.

The Highland Chieftain was already equipped with a Wärtsilä Nacos Platinum package for navigation, automation and DP systems, and has a Wärtsilä propulsion drives package. For the test, additional software was temporarily added to the DP system so data could be routed over the vessel's satellite link to the onshore work station in California.

Wärtsilä officials stressed the test was carried out using standard bandwidth onboard satellite communication, with no land-based technology used for the communications between the vessel and the remote operator work station. The DP software was retrofitted within just 30 hours with Wärtsilä's modular, upgradable system.

“One of the first and most critical hurdles to overcome along the path to the enablement of intelligent shipping is to develop efficient and reliable remote control and monitoring capabilities, taking factors such as bandwidth limitations and cyber security into consideration,” said Andrea Morgante, head of digital for Wärtsilä Marine Solutions. “This test provides a clear indication that we are well on the way to achieving this. The fact that the ship was enabled for remote operation in only a few hours is a strong endorsement of Wärtsilä's position at the forefront of marine technology development.”

The successful development of remote access to ships will also enable virtual service solutions to customers needing tuning or testing of their DP systems, company officials say. It will also lead to for other pilot projects, such as automated docking procedures.

"Wärtsilä is committed to developing technologies that enable a Smart Marine future. In the age of digitalisation, the future Smart Marine ecosystem will involve connecting 'smart' vessels with 'smart' ports to enable an even more efficient use of resources. It will also reduce the impact on climate while enhancing safety," said Roger Holm, president of Wärtsilä Marine Solutions.

Houston-based GulfMark Offshore uses Wärtsilä products and systems in three of its Highland series PSVs, and has the company’s DP systems in other vessel classes.

"At GulfMark Offshore, we believe that it is important to embrace new technologies since they represent the future of our industry. If companies are to remain competitive they must look ahead and take advantage of the tremendous development work being done by companies such as Wärtsilä,” said Ashley Robinson, senior vice president for operations at GulfMark.