AI and Smart Tech: The Future of the Superyacht Bridge

6 October 2022 By Marilyn Mower
Feadship's Pure future concept
Courtesy of Feadship

Nearly every year, the creative brain trust at Feadship’s De Voogt Naval Architects, Design Studio De Voogt, shares design projections leaping toward the future. These advanced concepts that go far beyond profile renderings are designed to inspire. Rather than imaginative artwork ungrounded by practicality, they include engineered solutions down to propulsion packages, safety regulations, general arrangements, articulating platforms, and glass and finishes concepts. The full plate of innovations — debuted at Monaco Yacht Shows with names such as Breathe, X-stream, Relativity, Royale, Qi, and Choice — aren’t necessarily expected to emerge on a single finished yacht, but emerge they do in elements, pushing a corner of the envelope here and tugging the edges of innovation there. The propulsion concepts for Breathe famously made their way to Savannah, for example.

The Pure Concept

The 81.75-meter Pure concept introduced at the 2021 Monaco show to oohs and ahhs for its smoothly curved, minimalist exterior and for its main and upper deck living spaces designed to blend the indoor and outdoor environments in a dramatic way. But there is another feature far beyond aesthetics that will cause lasting discussion, and one which is ripe for development: Pure’s hidden bridge. By eliminating a bridge deck, the yacht gains a much sleeker, lower profile with all the knock-on effects that brings to motion and stability without compromising owner lifestyle. In fact, this concept is all about lifestyle — at least Studio De Voogt’s vision for how owners will want to live in the future.

Visual and social connections via open-plan architecture, tiered-yet-connected aft decks, and a massive three-story atrium stretching define the plan. Yes, we are assured, it could be built to full classification standards. As for the current design darling — sliding glass walls — there are a lot of them, and foldout platforms (yawn) on the lower deck. But let’s return to the hidden (Feadship prefers the term “concealed”) bridge. If the deck above main is the owners’, and the forward main deck is a tender garage, where is the wheelhouse? Actually, in terms of stability, it’s in one of the best places on the ship — low, just slightly forward of amidships and offering incredible adjacencies to crew areas and mechanical spaces.

Courtesy of Feadship

What’s missing is the 180-degree wall of windows to see through when you drive the boat. Take a moment while your brain wraps around that concept.

The first point is to understand that this is NOT a concept for a remotely controlled yacht. Pure has a full crew just like any other vessel of her tonnage and horsepower. This concept will, however, take a big leap into the use of electronics and computational power for enhanced situational awareness on the bridge. Instead of the baby steps of a heads-up display here or there, or an instrument overlay on a single chart screen there, this is the entire kit synced to work together in real time. If it sounds like a futuristic Star Trek Enterprise bridge, you will be surprised to know this “concept” is already in operation aboard commercial and military ships — submarines have no bridge windows after all, and neither do tanks.

Imagine the “bridge” has become a command center that’s like a theater in the round with Google glasses. And like Google glasses, it utilizes sensors and cameras and artificial intelligence that analyze all the data in microseconds for situational analysis. In addition to input from onboard sensors, cameras, and thermal imaging, GPS, weather and sea state data, ECDIS, LIDAR, RADAR, and SONAR, an almost unlimited amount of data could be added to the stream. This is currently being done on tugs, ships, and coastal ferries in European waters that are being helmed either full-time or during harbor maneuvers by remote fleet command centers assisting onboard crew.

By eliminating a bridge deck, the yacht gains a much sleeker, lower profile with all the knock-on effects that brings to motion and stability without compromising owner lifestyle.

This is the sort of setup that would support totally unmanned cargo or tanker operations or drones. While the fleet command systems in operation may also make use of Virtual Reality simulation, the Studio De Voogt concept does not rely on virtual reality or shore-based captains, but on onboard crew who manage all the tasks — just without looking out windows from prime real estate.

“The concealed bridge concept could be used on vessels of all sizes, but will have the most benefit, I think, to the under 500 GT yacht because it is difficult to arrange a main deck master that has forward views and deck access. Owners these days want their cabin with views, so you would have to make the master aft on the bridge deck or add another deck above, but within your tonnage,” says Tanno Weeda, who along with Jan Schaffers, masterminded the concept for presentation in Monaco. They have well-developed plans for the concept at 1,800 GT and 3,000 GT.

Part of the value in presenting the concept was to obtain crew feedback. Did they get that?

“Oh yes,” says Weeda. Contradicting my suspicions, he notes, “The captains were not that negative, especially the younger ones.”

Courtesy of Feadship

Schaffers notes that the sentiment seemed to be, “The yacht is for the owner and I am there for the owner, and if this makes it better for the owner, I can do it.” Weeda adds that they were very attuned to crew feedback. “We need the input from the crew to make sure we make the yacht work for the client,” he says. “The most important thing they asked for was wing stations,” says Weeda, which, along with a flying bridge on the sun deck, they could already point to in the plan. Wing stations, a stern station, and/or a portable helm pack would be used for docking or anchoring maneuvers and then disappear. They highlighted that the concealed bridge preserves owner and guest privacy on fore and aft decks — no need to set the helm aft or extend a brow to shield a Jacuzzi or lounge on the deck below from wheelhouse view. And, unlike the current mindset that the bridge needs an open view forward (for most of maritime history, a vessel was controlled from a position aft) a fully integrated smart bridge can be located virtually anywhere on the vessel.

This could be a game changer not unlike that which took place when engine rooms were first moved aft of amidships, completely revamping lower deck accommodation layout options or when beach clubs moved forward from the stern with folding terraces port and starboard instead. They said there are two active discussions with clients for this concept at present.

Adapting the Concealed Bridge

As Schaffers and Weeda explained, the Pure concept of the concealed bridge can adapt to each project and would differ if the intention is that the captain and watch officer work alone or in teams. In their initial concept, they made it a hub of crew life and completely rethought crew movement paths around the yacht. They noted immediate benefits to the scheme such as dedicated radio rooms — a feature often eliminated (along with a crew dayhead) to preserve more owner real estate on an upper deck. “Another feature is that you can combine things with this space, such as a place to hold crew meetings or training. It shortens the distance dramatically between command and engineering spaces and off-watch crew in case of an emergency,” Weeda comments.

On the other hand, while in port, the wheelhouse sometimes becomes a crew hangout space or a private place to write an email or work on an online course. They said that would need to be considered in the GA to ensure crew welfare is maintained. And of course, whether it is going to be open to guests or not would affect its size and amenities. Both Weeda and Schaffers feel that it would be of high interest to guests when the yacht is underway, or when discovering what travel or activities were planned for the day as shown on large display screens.

The command center presented with Pure is not unlike the training simulators familiar to captains and aspiring officers with work zones arrayed under monitors displaying input from cameras and electronics. A large, curved monitor could display a full 270-degree view of the environment in real time with augmenting information popping up as appropriate on the “picture window” while engine and systems data stay displayed on individual monitors.

Courtesy of Feadship

Conforming to Code

But how would this mesh with LY3? For the answer, we turned to Section 18.2 of the Red Ensign code on bridge visibility, which directed us to SOLAS Chapter V, sections 15, 19 22, 24, 25, 27, and 28. It turns out such an idea is not specifically prohibited. A view of the sea and horizon from the con is discussed but it does not say where that con has to be or if it can be the flying bridge or wing stations — which are in fact mandated along with their degrees of visibility fore and aft. It is stated that for vessels not less than 45 meters, the view of the sea surface from the con position cannot be obscured by more than two ship’s lengths or 500 meters, whichever is shorter. Bow cameras and LIDAR certainly can be expected to give a superior view to that.

In one section, a range is given for the height of windows as measured from floor and overhead and their maximum incline, but nowhere does it say you must have windows, or how many. In fact, in commercial practice now in harbors in northern Europe — Norway being the leader — the con is often an array of screens at fleet control where a shoreside captain with every imaginable sensor and perspective view at his or her disposal actually takes the helm of in- or outbound ships. The benefit to this augmented intelligence (AI) system at night or in poor conditions over a ship-bound pilot is obvious.

Rolls-Royce and Kongsberg — leaders in autonomous ship development — debuted these systems six years ago. Iiro Lindborg, General Manager, Remote & Autonomous Operations for Rolls-Royce, says, “AI is undoubtedly one of the most significant advances made to-date in terms of ship navigation safety. It provides bridge personnel with a much greater understanding of the ship’s surroundings.” The company expects passenger ships to be one of the biggest markets.

Courtesy of Feadship

In the Far East, Japanese ship specialist Mitsui is installing an AI system aboard a 165-meter passenger ferry, Sunflower, which operates between Kobe and Oita, Japan.

On a slightly different note, in the U.S., Sea Machines introduced SM200, moving control of towing and harbor vessels outside their wheelhouses. Captains using the SM200 have propulsion and steering control in their hands, wherever they might be on board. It was approved by the ABS and the U.S. Coast Guard for use in articulated tug barges in early 2020. While this gear is designed to be used by a captain on deck, this is a precedent-setting step in the break from a fixed helm position.

With the power of systems like these, as well as increased acceptance for autonomous ship operations, more change is inevitable for yacht control stations, and if yachting follows military and commercial shipping, the buzz will be all about augmented intelligence or enhanced situational awareness for captain and crew. Feadship is betting that one radical idea can lead to safer and more efficient operations while at the same time enhancing owner and guest lifestyle.

This feature originally ran in the July 2022 issue of Dockwalk.


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