Control of Launch and Recovery in Enhanced Sea-States: Part of the Launch and Recovery Co-Creation Initiative

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Engineering Computer Science and Maths


Currently many marine operations, such as the Launch and Recovery (L&R) from a mother ship of small craft, manned and unmanned air vehicles and submersibles, can only be attempted safely in sufficiently calm sea-states. As an example, the L&R of a small craft from a mothership typically involves the two vessels moving together in proximity (linked by a bow-line) before the main physical connection of the two via a crane/hoist mechanism. In many cases the wave-critical high risk elements of the overall task, i.e. the connection and subsequent hoist of the small craft to the parent vessel, only last for a few tens of seconds. Taking longer than this increases the operation at risk. Once the two craft are physically connected the operator is committed to initiate the hoisting process. In this context even the short term prediction of quiescent periods of vessel motion resulting from lower than average wave activity in otherwise large sea states, has considerable operational value and may allow L&R to be untaken safely in conditions which would currently be deemed unsuitable. Such enhanced L&R capabilities are very attractive to modern navies. In this project the research aim is to develop a novel approach to predicting a suitable time instant at which to initiate an L&R operation, together with a confidence measure (provided as advice to a human operator), and then to control the execution of the subsequent lift operation once initiated, using a novel form of Model Predictive Control (MPC).

The key project deliverables are: (i) a prototype decision support system (DSS), running within a software simulator, which provides continuously updated short term predictive simulations over a finite-time horizon of all aspects of the recovery process; (ii) a controller for the actual physical hoist process. These two elements will exploit hydrodynamic vessel motion prediction models driven by wave predictions from a Deterministic Sea Wave Prediction (DSWP) system, and historical and real-time vessel motion sensor data. The DSS will initially be engaged as the small craft approaches the mothership and picks up a bow-line (a low risk activity), but is not yet attached to the hoist mechanism. The research will assume the presence on the mothership of a generic winch/crane lifting system with a single cable. The cable tension is a key controlled quantity and the maximum lifting force available is a major system specification parameter. The DSS will: (i) identify an appropriate moment to attach the hoist line and initiate hoisting during predicted quiescent periods; (ii) provide a confidence measure for the safety/success of that specific simulated lift. An appropriate time to attach and hoist will be identified by taking a snap-shot of the current state of both vessels (to use as initial conditions) together with short term predictions of the movement of the mothership to simulate whether it is possible to successfully recover the small craft using the MPC controller. The operator will then be presented with a current advice summary including confidence metrics. If as a result of this advice connection and hoisting is not initiated, the process repeats using a snapshot of the new current data. This cycle continues until the operator decides to engage the hoist (or the recovery is aborted). When connection/hoisting is actually initiated, the physical lifting phase will then employ the same MPC controller used in the simulation, exploiting predictions of the motion of the mothership, the actual real-time measured motions of both craft and a free body model of the small craft when suspended clear of the water.

Planned Impact

The research vision underpinning the EPSRC "Launch and Recovery Co-Creation Initiative" is to create the new science that can be exploited to provide the underpinnings of a new generation of high added-value products to upgrade the performance and prolong the service life of existing naval vessels. It is generally accepted that the number of new vessels and new vessel types being planned by the UK, and indeed other navies, is modest, and thus a key focus is on upgrading the performance and service life of existing craft using new technology-based systems. This is one aspect of the EPSRC Formative Growth in manufacturing thread aimed at adding new technology based value to a new generation of UK products. The Launch and Recovery Co-Creation Initiative is atypical in so far as a high profile industrial consortium, led by BAE Systems, was engaged in this endeavour at the outset with EPSRC, and they take on the primary role of post project "push through" to higher technology readiness levels and play a key role in influencing investment from industry, the MOD and other organisations such Innovate UK, leading eventually to market.

The outputs from this proposal can be multi-tracked because a large number of commercial maritime operations in addition to naval roles can benefit from the enhanced operational control made possible by quiescent period prediction. The applicants have collaborated with Shell Trading and Supply (STASCO) exploring the problem of coupling cryogenic natural gas tankers to large floating gas collection facilities. Helicopter transfers from vessels are a vital part of day to day operations in the North Sea offshore industry, and these are directly equivalent to their naval counterparts. Less obvious is the application of Fast Robust MPC methods based on Deterministic Sea Wave prediction to renewable energy problems. To maximize the energy capture, a wave energy converter (WEC) must have a frequency response function which is the complex conjugate of the short term spectrum of the incoming wave system. This means that the WEC needs to continuously adapt its frequency response function (using active feedback), which requires predicting the incoming wave profile. Clearly this is an application of DSWP and the co-applicants have worked extensively on so called wave-by-wave tuning of WECs, and several of their publications in this area exploit Convex Optimal Control as a route to best exploit the wave predictive data while minimising the cost of WEC systems. Hence the future market demand for ever more effective cheaper wave RADARs arising from maritime operations enabled by the outcomes of the planned research during the Launch and Recovery Co-Creation Initiative, will potentially have a profound impact on reducing the cost of wave energy and help release its potential. The applicants propose to vigorously pursue this dual-tracking of the impact of the proposed project through their membership of the EPSRC funded SuperGen Marine Core.


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Description Marie Curie ITN
Amount € 3,932,721 (EUR)
Organisation European Union 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 10/2017 
End 09/2021