“It’s an autonomous aircraft, a large drone, that will be equipped with sensor technology to measure vessel emissions in Norwegian waters – it’ll fly for between two to three months at a time taking readings.”
Interviews often experience little moments of quiet while new questions are pondered, or interesting details are digested. Rarely do they fall silent through sheer amazement.
“Two to three months,” repeats Lars Alvestad, Acting Director General of The Norwegian Maritime Authority (NMA), before slowing his delivery a little, like a teacher explaining something to a dumbfounded pupil: “We’ve just reached agreement with Airbus to supply it.
“The drone will fly high above the surface of the water, much higher than our current drone fleet, but it will still be able to capture the data we need. The concept is under development now and we expect it be actively operating within the next year or so.”
He adds, somewhat needlessly it must be said; “It’s the first project of its kind in the world.”
The NMA is an authority with ambition. Acting as the administrative and supervisory body for both Norwegian flagged ships and foreign vessels in Norwegian waters, it’s the job of Alvestad and his Haugesund-based team to enforce national and international legislation, agreements and political decisions, while safeguarding maritime people, assets and the environment. The latter has been singled out as NMA’s key focus area for 2019, leading to the initial exchange on the Airbus project.
Over the course of 2019 the vessel inspections carried out by NMA surveyors will have increased ‘green’ demands in a bid to “influence the industry to think and act with greater environmental awareness.”
The authority is also working to increase awareness of new rules and regulations regarding emissions to air and discharges to sea, while enabling effective enforcement.
In fact, this interview comes just days after the levying of a NOK 700,000 (USD 80,000) fine to cruise ship MS Magellan, owned by the Greek company Global Cruise Lines Ltd, for violating legislation on fuel sulphur limits in Norway’s spectacular World Heritage fjords. It was the first penalty to be issued since the introduction of the law in March, limiting sulphur content to just 0.1% (the Magellen recorded 0.17%).
“I think we are going to see increased frequency in the issuing of fines,” says Alvestad, noting that the NMA also administers regional ECA requirements, “but that will be a short to medium term trend. Once owners and operators get used to the legislation – and once they begin testing their own fuel rather than believing everything their suppliers claim – they will adjust to the new compliance reality. It is, after all, for the benefit of everybody.”
It’s the new sulphur requirements that have been the catalyst for the arrival of the drones. Even discounting the latest Airbus project, the NMA was already blazing a trail for the use of airborne sensor technology.
In 2018, after a period of intensive testing, it became the first maritime authority to utilize drones in a bid to “uncover illegal emissions.”
“As an authority we are always looking for new ways to most effectively serve our customers and society,” Alvestad notes. “We like a challenge and we’re keen to innovate to solve them, to demonstrate what is possible. The drones are a case in point.”
NMA currently has sensors measuring sulphur emissions on three multicopters (drones with four propellers), which are in turn owned by the Norwegian Coastal Administration and operated by the Norwegian Coast Guard. They can also be fitted with cameras, infrared cameras and a variety of supporting sensors to assist with operations such as oil pollution control and rescue tasks. The fleet is set to expand by the end of 2019.
“We basically fly them around 100m behind vessels,” Alvestad explains, “keeping a safe distance so as not to endanger passengers or assets should there be a malfunction. The sensors then detect emissions from the vessel exhausts and measure them in accordance with the relevant regulations. It is an incredibly effective, and highly efficient, way to ensure standards are maintained.
“We believe this is a project that can be emulated right across the world – in fact it should be – so we’re keen to discuss it within the industry and highlight the very compelling benefits it delivers.”
Collaborating for change
This desire to interact, share and position itself as a pioneering, ambitious and quality flag administration drives the NMA’s high profile involvement in Nor-Shipping, taking place this year between 4th and 7th June in Oslo and Lillestrøm, Norway. NMA has been a leading sponsor of the exhibition week for many years and sees huge value in participation.
“Nor-Shipping is an exceptional arena for bringing shipping’s entire value chain – from shipowners, to politicians, authorities, equipment manufacturers, academia, and solution and service providers – together in one place,” he explains. “The value of that can not be overstated. It is a facilitating platform for collaboration and, as we know, collaboration is vital to the successful evolution of maritime.”
As an example, Alvestad discloses details of a discussion he had during Nor-Shipping 2015.
“I’d been invited to speak at a Nor-Shipping event focused on assessing the potential for future autonomous vessels,” he explains. “In a stakeholder discussion after my presentation we were imagining a road map to the future and how we could best prepare for autonomous operations. The issue was raised that to enable progress industry needed a maritime authority to work closely with, to test systems and build procedures, standards and regulations. I basically said, ‘well, look no further.”
As a result of that conversation – in tandem with a range of complementary developments, and the stated ambition of the NMA to be a leader in maritime innovation – progress followed swiftly. In 2016 NMA signed an agreement with the Norwegian Coastal Administration creating the world’s first autonomous vessel test-bed in Trondheim fjord, and since that point the organization has been heavily involved in the Yara Birkeland project (which, when it launches next year, will be the world’s first fully autonomous container vessel).
“Good things happen when we work together,” Alvestad smiles, “and Nor-Shipping is an excellent platform for facilitating collaboration.”
Looking to the future – and one gets the impression Alvestad and the NMA are firmly focused on the horizon – the Acting Director General sees an increasing pace of change and technological uptake.
“I’ve been in shipping since 1974 and have obviously seen a great many industry developments, but nothing like in recent years, when,” he states with a laugh, “the industry has gone into overdrive.
“When we had the meeting at Nor-Shipping in 2015 some of the participants were saying we’d have autonomous vessels in 30 or 40 years. I went out on a limb and suggested 10 years. But look what’s happened; the first one will launch just five years after that conversation.
“In such a dynamic environment authorities have to stay close to industry stakeholders and understand, and if possible play a part in, the innovation process. We must remain relevant to serve and safeguard industry and society in the best way possible. That is our ambition at NMA. We don’t want to play catch up, we want to lead from the front.”
An objective that, on the back of recent developments, is clearly off to a flying start…