Double Trouble – Digital Twinning at Sea

September 18, 2018 9:34 am

When you watched Tom Hanks being brought to Earth in Apollo13, you may not realise it, but it was the concept of “twinning” that saved the day, ship and crew. The fact NASA was able to replicate the craft on the ground was key. Now the digital world is doing something similar…digital twinning. What will it mean for seafarers, shipping and maritime training?


We recently covered the issue of “Industry 4.0” and of how the shipping industry is having to react to the challenges of digitalisation, the blockchain and the looming threats and opportunities of autonomous vessels. Another of the new technology buzzwords which is being increasingly used is that of a “digital twin”.

In this context, a digital twin refers to a digital replica of physical assets, processes, and systems that can be used for various purposes. The digital representation reflects how a physical device operates and lives throughout its life cycle.

It does so by integrating artificial intelligence, machine learning, and software analytics with data to create living digital simulation models that update and change as their physical counterparts’ change. The twin even learns and updates itself from multiple sources to represent its near real-time status, working condition or position. You may already be thinking that this sounds great for a washing machine, but what about a ship.

The twinned system uses sensor data that conveys various aspects of its operating condition and even integrates historical data from past machine usage to factor into its digital model. Increasingly, across various industrial sectors, twins are being used to optimise the operation and maintenance of physical assets, systems, and manufacturing processes.


Twinning is a key and formative technology for the Industrial Internet of things (IoT), where physical objects can live and interact with other machines and people virtually. With the need to evolve and digitise, it seems shipping is perhaps the next sector in which twinning will be significant.

Indeed, again it is Classification Societies who are taking the lead on this. Lloyd’s Register (LR) recently announced the first ever digital assurance framework for the marine and offshore industry, something which it terms, “Digital Compliance”.

For LR, the increasing use and advancement of digital twins presents a significant opportunity in terms of improving aspects of their operational performance and maintenance regimes, as well as allowing for greater transparency and repeatability in demonstrating compliance with internal and external requirements.

According to the Classification Society, their new framework is applied through a series of defined levels and builds confidence in the digital twin that is used within a digital health management (DHM) system.


The idea of twinning when it comes to ships is very complicated, and certainly not without its problems. While shipping looks to adapt to so many new challenges, it is perhaps hard to see how a universal level of take up will be realistic in even the medium term.

Think again about the terms that are being used, and the concepts that they will open shipping up too. There is no doubt the ideas sound wonderful, and “Digital Health Management’ seems utterly compelling.

Whether you are a shipper and cargo owner, an insurer, or even a seafarer. Who could fail to be excited by the prospect of ships being digitally twinned and their every action and reaction predicted, understood and learned from.

What though, can a digital twin realistically reflect, when so much of what a ship does is controlled by humans? This seems to be a real stumbling block for the technology. While it may be possible to learn what people have done, it is often far harder to predict what they will do.


Obviously, it is true to say that seafarers are all working within the same basic parameters of compliance. There are some wiggle factors, but what one would expect of a Second Officer or Third Engineer is pretty uniform. Regardless, in theory, of any surrounding factors.

Now, it is not always the way. The reason why is because, well, humans are fairly complicated pieces of shipboard machinery. They react differently dependent on so many human factors. Even real twins may not always do the same thing, so it is a real stretch to see how digital twins can truly reflect ships with human watchkeepers onboard.

A Certificate of Competency is a guarantee, of some response, of sorts. Indeed, the whole issue of shipping compliance rests on it. However, there are just so many more factors to consider. In heading so quickly to a digital maritime industry, we need to ensure that all the tools, systems and capabilities are right.

There are obviously the training aspects, and of course for us at KVH Videotel, that is always of paramount importance. The issue of how well-trained seafarers are will not only impact how they react but also the effect of doing so. For seafarers, the realities of life onboard shape every reaction. There is a reason fatigue is such as concern, as it affects the ways in which humans react.


It is not just about fatigue there are the other, perhaps softer, issues to consider. These might surround the likes of food, exercise, connectivity, shore leave, friendships, engagement, and even the enjoyment of the job.

For any digital health management system to truly deliver on its immense potential, and for digital twins of vessels to capture the nuance and realities of how vessels respond, there must be some human angle to the digital debate.

The ship can produce binary outputs, but humans seldom do. There are some answers which are moving the debate forward, and the KVH Videotel Performance Manager system and Competency Assessment tools do indeed give crewing managers and Human Resource departments insight which they would otherwise lack.

This is a step forward and an important part of the answer. However, it should also be considered that fault detection, diagnostics, and prognostics are technical pursuits. They can only truly deliver in the shipping industry of today when they work in parallel with the seafarers, or as we like to think, the vessel’s analogue twin.