April 4, 2021

Interview with Mr. Iiro Lindborg, in charge of customer solution at Groke Technologies

This interview is to introduce Groke Technologies and the company’s expectations from Japanese market to readers of Japan Maritime Daily. Original article published in Japan Maritime Daily on the 16th of December 2020.

What is the company’s profile? What were the reasons for accepting the investment by Mitsubishi corporation among Japanese companies? How much is Mitsubishi Corporation’s stake in the company?

Groke Technologies is a company focusing on creating solutions that will reduce navigation crew stress and ensuring peace of mind during operation even in the most challenging situations onboard different vessels. Groke is headquartered in Turku, Finland but we have also presence in Tokyo. Background of the company founders is from Rolls-Royce autonomous vessel technology research centre where we demonstrated the worlds first remote controlled vessel and also the first fully autonomous vessel including collision avoidance functionality.

From our past in Rolls-Royce we had good connection to people at Mitsubishi and our future visions in regard to autonomous vessels technologies were aligned. Because of that reason when we set up Groke Technologies we contacted Mitsubishi and asked if they would be interested in investing into our company and partnering up with us and we have collaborated ever since.

There are a number of research and development projects for autonomous ships in Europe and Japan. Do you think that Europe is more advanced than Japan? If so, what are the reasons for this?

There are number of research programs ongoing globally in the autonomous vessel and technology domain. I would say that there is not that much difference between regions on these. Some have started a bit later than the others so there is naturally difference in current progress and status but more or less all have the same end goal and many of the programs running are for example looking at the collision avoidance aspect. Lot of work is also focusing on the regulatory side of the topic providing valuable feedback to IMO (International Maritime Organization) and its MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships) working groups.

So far the world’s first demonstrations, the first remote controlled tug the Svitzer Hermod in Denmark and the first fully autonomous vessel the road ferry Falco in Finland have been carried out in Europe but there are many future demonstrations coming up in different regions of the world in the near future and I would say that currently there is no difference in advancements globally. Japan there are exciting development programs ongoing in Japan like the ones under Nippon Foundations DFFAS (Designing the Future of Full Autonomous Ship) and MEGURI2040 funding umbrella. The only difference at the moment seems to be on publicity of the program progress as some research programs release more intermediate results than other. We are also excited in programs like the e5 program, for electric vessels would be preferable when it comes to autonomous vessels, and look forward to seeing that progressing.

What is the system which the company and Mitsubishi Corporation are developing in Finland and Japan currently? How is it different from other systems? What kind of equipment does the system consist of?

We are developing an awareness system that monitors what is happening around the vessel and it will keep the watchkeepers and captain aware of the risks around the vessel. We aim to have a solution where human onboard a vessel works in harmony with the new technology, and will be an exciting next- generation tool for crews. We hope that we can lower the burden of crews, and bring safety and peace.

The technology behind our solution is utilising something called sensor fusion where we combine information from different sources and provide that information to users in a user-friendly manner. As part of creating user friendly solution based on customer needs, we have spent a lot of time evaluating our ideas and solutions with local users and the user interface will of course be in Japanese.

When it comes to technology, our solution uses a camera system which allows for enhanced visibility under poor environmental conditions as main source of information in addition to AIS data, we have the option of using radar data as well. Though our solution is a standalone solution where there is no interface to other onboard equipment is needed, therefore retrofitting/installation to vessels can be done smoothly. However, we are open to collaboration, and utilizing onboard equipment.

Currently other systems are mainly basing the risk and object detection on radar information and AIS but as mentioned we are basing our on machine vision. In machine vision we are utilising machine learning in the background and through this we can detect and also identify the objects our cameras see. This means that we can provide more accurate detections and risk evaluation when compared to pure radar based detections. Also in order to detect for example Japanese type of fishing vessels and other local vessels that do not necessarily provide AIS signal we have been collecting so called teaching data in Japanese waters to teach our machine vision to identify also these. We have done this with multiple data collection sets installed into different types of vessels in Japanese waters for close to a year already now. Also from the user evaluations with local users we have received alot of good feedback that has generated alot of new ideas for our product but let’s not reveal all at once, we will tell about those in future.

How do you think autonomous ship will change maritime industries? 

I see that in first instance autonomous solutions will be supporting the crew onboard the vessels. Like with our awareness system, our aim is that the system works in harmony with the people onboard and technology is there to help them in stressful situations. Through this the people onboard can make good decision supported by data and technology. So, I would say we are now entering a period where more automation is coming to vessels in order to support the crew. Next step will in my opinion be such where technology will take over some of the tasks like for example watchkeeping in open seas. This approach is currently called as periodically unmanned bridge, where technology will give crew more resting time and if manoeuvring actions are needed the machine can carry them out or alternatively there is people onshore control centres who carry out the control actions for multiple vessels. There are of course limitations where such approach can be used but this is a good example where technology that is in the end developed for autonomous vessels will be utilised in manned vessels.

Then we will most likely see collision avoidance solutions which will first give guidance for the crew onboard and then gradually when solutions proven in action more control freedom will be given to technology and the role of people onboard will be more of monitoring type and the control will be carried out by people only in the more challenging situation like narrow fairways, port approaches etc..

I see that fully autonomous deep ocean cargo vessels are still quite far ahead but for some applications they may come sooner like barges, patrol boats and short distance ferries.

What does the company expect from Japanese market?

We see the Japanese market a really exciting one and there are a lot companies working on really interesting solutions but we believe that there is room also for us. At the moment we are focusing on providing our solutions only to domestic Japanese market, in future we will expand into global markets as well but for now the full focus is on providing solutions to meet the local user requirements. In our research work in Japan we have found out some really interesting differences in vessel operation between for example European vessels and Japanese local vessels and we aim to address these details in our solution offering as well. So our expectations of the market are high and we aim to help the Japanese maritime industry to raise to new levels through utilisation of new technology.