Ocean Algorithms: The Big Interview with Volvo Penta Marine’s President Johan Inden

Volvo Penta, part of the Volvo group with a focus on marine and industrial engines, has set the compass towards sustainability in the oceans and is using the traditionally land-locked tools of algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to turn the aqua-marine a little more green.

Last week, it launched its new IPS Professional Platform, describing it as the industry’s most advanced technology and propulsion platform for commercial marine vessels and superyachts.

The company claims the algorithm-based tech can deliver up to 30% savings in fuel efficiency and emissions, which can significantly affect climate, pollution, and, of course, costs.

In this interview, we speak to Johan Inden, President of Volvo Penta Marine, to discuss new ocean technology trends, the needs and wants of captains and shipping companies, and how algorithms and AI are finding a new role as “First Mate”.

Key Takeaways

  • Johan Inden sees the oceans in 2050 as crucial for humanity’s prosperity, anticipating accelerated measures to protect and preserve oceans.
  • Key emerging technologies include renewable fuels, hydrogen fuel cells, electric charging, and advancements in automation for safety and efficiency.
  • The marine industry must place an emphasis on decarbonization, with Volvo Penta contributing through innovative propulsion solutions and a commitment to Science Based Target initiative targets for decarbonization.

About Johan Inden

Johan Inden, Volvo PentaJohan Inden has worked on innovation across different disciplines and sectors for the past 20 years. Inden has been the President of Volvo Penta Marine Business for around three years and says that his role is to drive a sustainable future for the industry across the globe.

Before becoming President of the Marine Business at Volvo Penta, Inden served as CTO for the company. He is also Chair of the Board of Directors at Chalmers Ventures, where he assists the CEO and the organization, helping them build a world-leading university-based incubator and venture investor.

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The Future of Shipping in 2050

Q: Let’s spin things up a bit and start with what usually is the last question. So…

What is your vision for the oceans in 2050? Specifically, what will the shipping industry, both commercial and leisure, look like by then?

A: The prosperity of societies is closely connected to the oceans and waterways. With further population growth, globalization, offshore energy sector expansion, and the desire to explore and enjoy the open sea and coastlines, the oceans continue to grow in importance for humanity.

Towards 2050 we will see accelerated measures to protect and preserve the oceans, and the marine sector will be at the forefront with further steps in decarbonizing commercial shipping as well as consumer boating.

 

Some technologies we can expect on this journey include renewable fuels, hydrogen fuel cells, electric charging for marine vessels, and emerging solutions that we are constantly exploring.

Automation will be a key enabler in the years ahead. But when we talk about automation, we must consider the application nature and the safety piece. For example, safety must be the first priority, especially when you are letting anything out of the hands of the captain.

We had an interesting trial about five years back where we unveiled a completely autonomous docking capability as a prototype for a demo at Volvo Ocean Race. Despite being very successful, we received feedback from customers and OEM boat builders that this isn’t what they are. They want assistance, not release of control.

Although this is likely where the future will take us, and we have all the in-house capabilities to accomplish it, we must take into consideration what our customers want and the level of technology available that provides the necessary precision to make these features safe.

Looking ahead, I’m excited to see more of how virtual testing and AI will act as catalysts for enhanced experiences at sea. We’re leveraging a virtual testing environment to test new marine propulsion innovations and bring these solutions faster to market. All of this will propel decarbonization to the forefront of the marine industry.

The Maritime Industry Today

Q: What is the state of the maritime industry today, and what are the main challenges? 

A: One of the key challenges facing the maritime industry is its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2023 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development revealed that within the maritime trade industry greenhouse gas emissions have risen 20 % over the last decade, and 98.8 % of the fleet still runs on fossil fuels.

We are spearheading the path to decarbonization with a multifaceted approach to sustainability challenges facing the industry.

We’ve introduced world-leading propulsion solutions like the Volvo Penta IPS (Inboard Performance System), which can reduce fuel consumption by up to 30 % in a vessel, as well as Assisted Docking systems, enabling safer and more convenient navigation for users.

We have also subscribed to Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) targets and have officially committed to decarbonizing our solutions by 2050.

In addition to decarbonization, we need to make the consumer boating experience more accessible and more intelligent, similar to the widespread digital and sustainable transformation we’re seeing in all aspects of our lives.

In the commercial boating space, ease and intelligence are important but also valued are efficiency, uptime, and productivity. These are all important factors to keep in mind as the industry transforms to meet aggressive net-zero goals.

Putting Versatile Power Plants in the Captain’s Hands

Q: Let’s talk about the Volvo Penta’s new smart Eco Mode. How long has this new technology been in the making? How did it start, and what did it set out to solve or do? Who worked on it? 

A: Eco Mode is our answer to advancing intelligence and decarbonization in the marine industry. The feature automatically starts/stops individual engines based on proprietary software algorithms to determine optimal engine usage and drive-train based on data provided by sensors throughout the vessel that relay information such as fuel consumption and engine runtime.

We built very versatile power plants where we can switch on and off engines based on the power requested by the captain, as well as by the energy available in the system (e.g. how much battery power we have available). We’ve been developing this solution for over five years as part of a combined effort between our in-house software team and engineers.

Put simply, Eco Mode unlocks a new sustainability feature made possible by dual-power inputs, essentially combining the two separate motors, let’s say electric and combustion, into a single drive line that is intelligently connected. It delivers unrivaled new levels of efficiency with up to 30 % fuel savings in some situations.

The Nit and Grit of Volvo Penta’s New Tech

Q: Let’s get right into the new tech. Could you explain what type of algorithm it runs and how it determines optimal engine usage? 

A: The algorithms work in concert with and are embedded in our Electronic Vessel Control (EVC) system. The EVC is a safety-critical system and is subject to marine classification and certification.

We primarily work with deterministic algorithms. Data we leverage to inform drive train selection include fuel consumption, pressure, and more. It also takes into consideration two key inputs. The first input is the needs of the captain and the speed they desire. The second input is the number of service hours on each engine. The system will automatically pick the engine with the least number of service hours, therefore reducing the wear and tear on each engine.

We have implemented a few algorithms that use AI. These are primarily used for calibration where we can achieve better performance of the system as compared to regular deterministic programming.

We recognize the opportunity to bring more AI into our portfolio and have deep collaborations with several leading universities, including Chalmers University of Technology of Gothenburg, Sweden, where one of our employees is also a Ph.D. and teacher in the AI technology space. This has led us to engage multiple thesis workers on a continuous basis to explore this space. In our ongoing development of future products and services, we will see an accelerated infusion of AI.

The fact that the system is fully integrated makes it fairly straightforward to implement the steering algorithms. The algorithms are based on data from several hundred thousand vessel operating hours. This insight is unique and enables us to build a simple, effective, and easy-to-use system.

In essence, as an operator, you only need to ask for a certain power level by the throttle, and the system will provide the power at the least load of the system as possible, resulting in optimized emissions and wear and tear.

Decarbonizing the Oceans

Q: How can you help bring down carbon emissions in the sector?  

A: Minimize consumption based on the needs of the captain and the status of your engines.

When a vessel is running at low speed, our features can automatically shut down half of the engines and keep them on standby. ECO Mode will maintain this state as long as half of the engines are sufficient and there is an adequate margin to provide the power requested from the captain.

According to logged vehicle data from 473 vessels powered with Volvo Penta, logging 846,200 hours, the average user is spending about 50% of the operation time in the lower speed range, where half of the engines are enough to power the vessel. This is how Eco Mode is contributing to the effort to decarbonize the marine industry.

As the marine industry moves towards decarbonization, vessels can upgrade from their Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) propulsion systems to hybrid and electric options without needing to redesign or scrap the vessel.

The Road Ahead and The Future of the Seas

Q: Going back to your vision of the future of the seas, what do you think needs to be done to get there?  

A: It begins with connecting with the boaters and getting them involved at an early stage. When we connected with over 120 boaters, we learned what got them excited about the path to decarbonization.

We learned that comfort is emerging as a key driver behind sustainable solutions. For example, what really caught the attention of boaters were features such as silent cruising; peaceful nights onboard with batteries in place of a generator; or Joystick Docking in electric mode, which makes leaving or arriving at the dock a silent and stress-free experience.

These are just some of the factors contributing to the shift within the marine industry towards a more sustainable future. The more we get new technology into the hands of those who will use it most, we’ll be able to refine our solutions to ensure a more sustainable and accessible boating experience.

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Ray Fernandez

Ray is an independent journalist with 15 years of experience, focusing on the intersection of technology with various aspects of life and society. He joined Techopedia in 2023 after publishing in numerous media, including Microsoft, TechRepublic, Moonlock, Hackermoon, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and ServerWatch. He holds a degree in Journalism from Oxford Distance Learning, and two specializations from FUNIBER in Environmental Science and Oceanography. When Ray is not working, you can find him making music, playing sports, and traveling with his wife and three kids.