The global robotics in shipbuilding market size was $581.3 million in 2020. The market is projected to grow to $1001.4 billion in 2028. Parts of the shipbuilding sector have used industrial robotic arms for welding and blasting. But there has been a slower adoption of robotics and automation technologies to alleviate the labor-intensive elements of shipbuilding work and reduce workers’ physical stress.

Kiva Allgood, President and CEO of Sarcos Robotics, says that compared to the automotive industry that has relied on robotics for repetitive tasks for six decades, shipyard robotics are still in their infancy. Allgood, formerly the Global Head of IoT and Automotive for Ericsson, wants to commercialize the company’s military experience for applications that save lives.

“In the US in particular, many dangerous tasks in shipyards are not automated today that really should be, and like many industries, shipping was tremendously stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which compounded and highlighted the need for increased automation in shipyards,” said Allgood.

“Shipyards are continually changing and complex environments; this makes leveraging traditional robotics difficult,” said Allgood. “Utilizing highly dexterous mobile robotic systems that can perform repetitive tasks like grinding, sandblasting or painting via supervised and task autonomy is now possible.”

Allgood says that by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), shipyards can now use technologies that have been on the factory floor for decades.

Modern shipyards

Allgood says that shipyards of the future fall under a broad array of operations, from shipbuilding and dismantling to military defense and operations that may not be traditionally thought of as shipyard activities, such as maintenance and upkeep of offshore wind energy generation equipment.

“Within each of those operations are a wide variety of complex tasks encompassing welding and cutting, machining, plumbing, electrical work, rigging, painting, cleaning and removal of paint and other coverings, and cleanup of chemical and fuel residues,” adds Allgood.

“Shipyards have always relied on skilled workers for tasks such as painting, welding, and cutting and these are tasks that need to be performed in various elements, at height and even underwater,” said Allgood. “The primary uses of robotics in every shipyard application are sparing humans from the danger of those types of tasks and increasing their productivity.”

Looking to the future, Allgood says that shipyards are likely to remain very human-centric for the foreseeable future and that there is room for automation and tools that augment people’s ability and allow them to carry tasks out of harm’s way.

“The industry is responding positively to highly dexterous mobile robotic systems that pair operator and machine to deliver human-like dexterity and task autonomy – while enhancing safety and improving productivity,” said Allgood.

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“Shipyards will likely have robotics capable of performing many tasks – with systems that can be updated to meet new requirements and functions, which reduces the need for operators to upgrade hardware and instead puts the focus on software.”

Allgood adds that surveillance and inspection are also a part of the shipyard of the future. “Today, an electromechanical system like the Sarcos SapienSea Class can stay submerged for up to two hours at a time and remain fully operational in depths up to one kilometer, making it more flexible than a human doing the same job.”

Improving worker safety

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that between 2011 and 2017, shipyard workers had 45 fatal accidents and 61,600 nonfatal injuries/illnesses. A report from Water Welders found that commercial divers die at a rate 40 times that of the national average for all workers.

Shipyard workers are at risk of exposure to chemicals such as asbestos, welding fumes, paints, solvents, and fuels, noise exposure, extreme temperatures, vibration, awkward body positions, and musculoskeletal injuries. “Shipyard workers may do their work dangling above water while a vessel is docked, and tasks may include underwater welding or hazard item removal,” said Allgood.

Allgood says that US shipyard workers are among the 16 million people they estimate to be employed in jobs that can be made safer by robotic augmentation. “The success benchmark for us is a significant reduction in on-the-job injury and a 2x or more increase in employee productivity,” said Allgood.

“Teleoperated remote robots are vital for performing intricate, and even dangerous, tasks that require human-like skill, all while keeping the operator out of harm’s way,” said Allgood.

Augmenting human strength

In September 2022, Sarcos completed a demonstration of its Repair Technology Exercise (REPTX) tools for the US Navy.

To demonstrate the field readiness of each robotic system, the Sarcos team was required to execute previously unknown jobs to validate the agility of their robotic systems.

“The robots carried out jobs including rust and paint removal at height using off-the-shelf tools, laser ablation, plasma ablation and cold spray tools. The Sapien Sea Class performed tasks underwater, including inspections and object retrieval,” said Allgood.

Sarcos’ Sapien Sea Class underwater robot has an integrated remotely-operated vehicle that can maneuver in shallow and deep underwater environments up to one kilometer. It can also inspect a ship’s hull, propeller shaft and propeller shaft tube and recover unidentified objects from a ship’s hull.

But Allgood says that even though these field trials took place on Navy property, the functions the robots demonstrated at the trials apply to work that is performed on commercial ships and commercial shipyards worldwide. “The September field test showed new solutions that combine human intelligence, instinct, and judgment with robotic strength, endurance and precision.”

“Most importantly, the field test illustrated how robotic solutions pair with humans, not replace them. It illustrated how human worker strength and ability could be augmented to boost productivity and reduce injuries,” said Allgood.

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