FEATURE | Innovation drives rapidly evolving tug and salvage industries

Kotug tugs at Port Hedland

To state that the tug and salvage sector has entered a period of great and rapid change is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Nevertheless, it is worth saying if only to underline the fact that everything is potentially up for grabs.

In what has in the past been a rather conservative industry, old certainties are being challenged on almost a day-to-day basis. The difficulty for operators is whether to wait and see where all this change takes us – because nobody knows with any certainty where it will – or to jump aboard now and hold on tight to avoid being left behind.

Buying a newbuild tug is, after all, a huge multi-million pound investment in a piece of kit that it would be reasonable to expect to have a working life of 30 years or, in many cases, more. The option of retro-fitting existing vessels also does not come cheap and is not something that your finance director will want you to do very often.

Environmental concerns drive change

So what are the factors that are driving change and what are the challenges ahead?

A new world outlook that puts environmental impact and protecting the planet towards, if not at, the top of the political and therefore business agenda, is driving an influx of environmental rules and regulations from international regulatory bodies, national governments and trading zones. These in turn are driving technical innovation and advance.

Diesel may be a contender for a long-service award, as was steam and before it sail, but it is a dirty fuel and with roughly 90 per cent of goods being transported by sea, it is not surprising that in today’s eco-aware world alternatives are being sought.

Tug operator Tokyo Kisen and Japan-based environmentally-friendly shipping solutions company e5 Lab have a new concept design of an all-electric propulsion harbour tug powered by a large-capacity battery and a hydrogen fuel cell. This is just one of an increasing number of such projects and is not some theoretical adventure; the plan is to have the e5 Tug operating commercially in two years’ time.

And this is by no means unique. Turkish ship designer and builder Navtek Naval Technologies, for example, is scheduled to launch its “ZeeTug” (zero emissions electric tug) in Istanbul next year.

Electric propulsion has been around for years, but advances in technology and the new regulatory environment have combined to make it more attractive.

While all-electric may offer a route to the holy grail of zero-emissions tugs, it is hybrid propulsion systems that are offering many operators a way to emphasise their green credentials and comply with new international standards.

Examples include the dual fuel ship-handling tug, PSA Aspen, a Robert Allan Ltd design, built at PaxOcean Shipyard in Singapore and recently delivered to PSA Marine, Singapore. It is designed to run on either diesel or natural gas, depending on what activity it is engaged in. This cutting-edge vessel is the first dual fuel tug to join PSA Marine’s fleet in the Port of Singapore, and the first Robert Allan Ltd tug of this type to enter service in Asia.

Meanwhile, in Germany, construction has started on the world’s first emission-free pushboat with Schottel announced as the supplier of the vessel’s propulsion system. Elektra will be a hybrid canal pushboat powered by a combination of fuel cells, batteries and electric motor. The hydrogen supplied to the fuel cell is generated via electrolysis from green electricity generated by wind power.

Again, the dual-fuel propulsion option is not new, just now far more attractive. Dual-fuel technology was introduced in the 1990s, and since then LNG has become established as a viable and attractive marine fuel. The expansion of the global LNG bunkering infrastructure has prompted the development of pure gas engines for larger scale applications in the marine and offshore sectors.

LNG is not loved by all and is seen by some crystal ball gazers as a halfway house to other fossil-free fuels now being researched and tested. All have hurdles to leap before becoming safe, economical and widely available, but as the rise of LNG shows, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Options for shipping in general include liquefied biogas, methanol, hydrogen, hydro-treated vegetable oil, ethanol and the back-to-the-future option of wind power.

As part of its bid to become CO2-neutral, the Port of Antwerp has already placed an order for the construction of the first tug in the world to be powered by hydrogen. The unique dual-fuel “Hydrotug” will be driven by combustion engines that burn hydrogen in combination with diesel.

The search for alternative marine fuels is focusing minds throughout the global market supply chain. An example of this was the recent announcement that AP Moller – Maersk, alongside Wallenius Wilhelmsen, BMW Group, H&M Group, Levi Strauss and Co and Marks and Spencer, are to explore LEO ‒ a blend of lignin (a cheap by-product from paper manufacture and one of the most common biopolymers) and ethanol – as a possible future fuel solution for sustainable shipping.

Tow and salvage by remote

The other major change on its way for the maritime industry in the far from distant future is a major expansion of the use of remote-controlled and autonomous shipping. But how will this impact on the tug and salvage sector?

Certainly, for salvors there are bound to be practical issues to overcome when dealing with a fully autonomous casualty, but then overcoming practical issues is what they do. How on earth to deal with a major fire on one of the ever-increasing-in-size mega container ships, is a more pressing question.

So are autonomous tugs feasible? Until now, tugs used for “autonomous” tests were all remote-controlled – that is operated from a land-based control centre.

This technology was ably demonstrated by Rolls-Royce Marine (now Kongsberg) and global tug operator Svitzer in 2017 when the tug Svitzer Hermod was safely driven around Copenhagen harbour by a tug master sitting at a screen in a quayside office. The technology made its commercial debut little over a year later when Purple Water’s Giano tug made history by becoming the first tug to undertake a long-distance commercial tow while being operated remotely from land.

Renowned tug safety expert Captain Henk Hensen argues that while a tug under the remote control of an experienced tug master can respond to quickly changing circumstances, such as the complex and often fluid interaction effects between a tug and a ship, this is much more of a hurdle for a truly autonomous vessel to jump.

Tugs and control systems will need to be developed in such a way that the tug can manage the problems itself. This will be a challenge, and an opportunity at the same time, to model these effects and cope with them even better than tug masters can.

The major advantages of remote-controlled tugs are that they take humans out of the danger zone – particularly in fire-fighting situations – and, let’s be brutally honest, offer operating companies the chance to significantly reduce staffing costs.

Basic problems remain, such as attaching a line to or from an unmanned vessel, but these are far from insurmountable and I for one predict that remote-controlled tugs are on their way. Fully autonomous ones though? Not in the near future.

These issues and other technological developments and initiatives in the sector will be among subjects discussed at the 26th International Tug, Salvage and OSV Convention and Exhibition (ITS) taking place from June 29 to July 3, 2020 at the Suntec Convention Centre in Singapore. The much-anticipated ITS 2020 Singapore will celebrate the innovation, invention and forward-thinking that is driving our industry, along with the traditional values that continue to enrich and sustain it. More details are available at www.tugandosv.com.

See all the other content from this month’s Tug and Salvage Week right here, including reviews, features, opinions and news.

John McCready

John McCready is the editor of International Tug & OSV