By R. Bruce Striegler

In mid-September, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) announced a new research program aimed at finding viable business-based, technological solutions to improve the safety and performance of marine vessels such as cargo ships and fuel tankers. Terry Lindstrom, General Manager of NRC’s ocean, coastal, and river engineering portfolio says, “This is an $8 million research program over the next five years with three primary focuses.” He says the program is designed to reduce the cost of Canadian marine operations, improve Arctic and offshore oil and gas operations and to enhance Canadian ship design. “By working closely with industry, we will deliver innovative solutions for the marine market.”

The marine vehicles program will focus on technologies and processes able to cut operating costs of vessels while contributing to safe Arctic and offshore oil and gas operations. Research to be conducted within the program will include working with advanced controls for systems like auto-pilot and roll stabilizers, improved vessel performance monitoring and analysis systems, the development of Arctic station-keeping technology and training simulators, advanced controls for unmanned marine vehicles, and conceptual and preliminary design tools for ice-class and inshore vessels.

“This program is in concert with external third-party partners, and our partner contribution is in the order of $24 million. We work on a leveraging ratio of about three to one, thus we’re anticipating that the attributable economic impact of this five-year program will be in the order of $70 million to the Canadian economy.” While NRC has partners in place, Lindstrom emphasizes that the agency can accommodate further partners within the program. “We’re always watching for Canadian companies looking for a strategic or competitive advantage either internationally or in North America.” Names of the private companies involved are not released without their prior agreement, with Lindstrom noting that NRC prefers to let those companies chose their own media opportunities and timing. “Other partners we do a lot of work with are government departments, such as Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard. Along with some of the big off-shore oil and gas companies, we also work in these subject areas with Canadian ferry operators.”

Improving hull designs and fuel consumption

NRC maintains two labs. One is in Ottawa, with the second, its primary lab, located in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “With the marine vehicles program, one of our primary focuses is reduction of fuel consumption. We’re using advanced navigational control systems which are integrated with motion stability systems we’ve developed.” Lindstrom explains that this is especially important in Arctic operations where the technology can help plot courses through ice, utilizing the best calculated course after accounting for wind, ice drift and thickness, thus saving fuel that otherwise would have been used to push the ship through thick ice on a direct route. “We’re using a lot of electronic control and prediction systems to determine the best route to take, what is the best means of getting from one point to another through the ice.”

With respect to increased vessel operability in the Arctic for the oil and gas industry, Lindstrom says, “We’re looking at technologies to improve station-keeping in managed ice conditions. The technology today for dynamic positioning is very well developed, but it’s developed largely for wind and waves, so a vessel can stay on-time and on-site. We’re now moving that into ice-covered waters.” Lindstrom explains that while there will be support vessels on-site helping break some of the ice, instead of mooring systems, thrusters will handle the station-keeping while there is an ice floe passing through an area of operations. “These are the next generation of station-keeping technologies.”

The marine vehicles program is examining vessel hull design, with the goal of reducing design costs. “We’re using increased capabilities of performance evaluation methods early on in the design phase of a vessel. It’s a lot cheaper to build, say, a polar ice breaker, by investing a small percentage of total cost of a vessel up-front to look at the conceptual design phase of a hull through physical and numerical modeling. That can help to determine if it’s the most effective and efficient design.” As well, the NRC Arctic program will help increase the performance of lifesaving appliances in extreme and remote environments, conduct tests and verification for product approval, and evaluate for extreme environment and improve regulations for life-saving technologies operating in the Arctic.

“We’re saying that at the end of five years of the program, we’re confident we’ll deliver on the outcomes. That is, reduction of fuel consumption, improved vessel designs, improved vessel operability through advanced control systems,” says Lindstrom. He takes care to ensure that the term program is not misunderstood. “Many people think that when there’s an announcement of a program, it means there’s money being given out, but this is why we leverage private partners, and collectively we develop that intellectual property, that technology. We see NRC as an investor in this research and development.” NRC currently operates 40 different research programs across its three research and development divisions, all representing areas of strategic importance and economic value for Canada.