Bobbing about in the North Sea, facing waves more of than 4m (13ft) – 50% higher than its heavy-weather testing requirements – the Viking LifeCraft system represents a completely new approach to safety vessels. It took 10 years to develop, and not only newly combines a lifeboat with a life raft, but offshore safety specialist Viking has also opted for an all-electric propulsion system, which has created a splash in a sector wedded to the tried and tested. Lifeboats have always been simple, using a basic means of propulsion to get people safely away from a distressed ship, and the maritime industry has never felt the need to change.
“It is a very innovative market, but it is also a very conservative market,” explains Niels Fraende, Viking’s vice president of cruise and LifeCraft.
“We were coming up against people wedded to diesel, but the market is now changing and there’s a lot of focus on emissions, so we have created something that is non-polluting.”
A compelling case
Convincing the maritime industry that electric was a viable alternative is not the only challenge the company has faced. The original idea was to develop a vessel that could act as both lifeboat and life raft, which could be packed away on board a ship, requiring less space than conventional lifeboats. This would also provide a compelling case for use in passenger ships, where the newly free space could be used for additional berths or passenger amenities.
“It came out of an EU project called Safecraft and at that time there was a prototype that eventually became LifeCraft,” Fraende says. He recalls the small-scale prototype having a diesel engine, which led to the first obstacle for the team. “The rules and regulations say a lifeboat has to be evaluated twice a week, and if the vessel was packed away in a container, with a diesel engine, that would not be possible,” he explains. But Fraende and his team realized diesel was not the only option.
“In a rescue scenario, while you need power to get away from a ship quickly, you do not need the same performance criteria in a life raft, where you just provide protection for those stranded at sea awaiting rescue,” he explains. According to Fraende, when help arrives, the craft can go back to being a powered lifeboat to maneuver up to whatever vessel is providing rescue, which means power is required only in short bursts.
Spark of inspiration
At the time of Safecraft, developments were taking place in the automotive industry, leading Viking to look at some of the electric propulsion systems on the market.“Electric cars were starting to become commercially available and batteries were entering the market,” recalls Fraende.
“We did a lot of analysis, took into account a number of considerations, and looked at what was available. The first issue to surface was around kilowatts – we needed to provide enough propulsion. Then in 2011-2012 Tesla entered the market, as did the likes of BMW, and electric propulsion started to be more attractive from a performance and battery-life perspective.”
In a decade of development, Viking produced more than 50 prototypes, each undergoing a range of tests, including using jet engines to see how they fared against 150km/h (93mph) winds. The result is an inflatable-hulled 13 x 8.5m (42 x 28ft) vessel with seats for 200 people, plus three crew members. Lithium batteries feed four 4.5kW Torqueedo motors, each mounted at the four corners of the vessel, a configuration that allows maximum maneuverability and can propel the LifeCraft at speeds of up to 4.5kts. “It can accelerate extremely quickly,” says Fraende. “At full speed, it takes just two or three minutes to get to a safe distance, and then you do not need the motors until help arrives.”
The final concept will be an evacuation system that includes a storing and launching unit. The four chutes and four LifeCraft that make up the system – enough to provide capacity for 800 people – are automatically unpacked from a single container and lowered to sea level within two minutes.
Evacuation chutes are umbilically attached to each craft, enabling quick embarkation, as well as helping evacuees with special needs, such as children, the elderly and those on stretchers, get away swiftly and safely.
“The advantage of evacuation at sea level is that you are not lowering a vessel from the deck with a lot of people in it,” explains Fraende. “And it is done with one single evacuation point.”
It takes 15 minutes to get 812 people off a troubled ship and into the LifeCraft system, and it can be done from either port or starboard side, which is not possible with conventional lifeboats. According to Viking, this means the system surpasses Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirements, as well as enabling greater flexibility in vessel design.
Once away from the vessel, the motors can be turned off, while the focus moves to keeping people safe, even in the roughest of seas. Recent heavy-weather sea trials saw LifeCraft loaded with 80 tons of ballast, to represent its full capacity weight, before being subjected to winds of 18m/s and waves reaching 4.6m (15ft).
“We launched the LifeCraft with the ship heading 3kts up against the wind, exposing the system to the full force of the fierce weather in the most critical test phase. We then demonstrated – with a simulated dead-ship condition – that the fully loaded LifeCraft system provides a safe and stable means of evacuation on both the weather and lee side for several hours,” recalls Fraende.
Crew training is kept to a minimum, too. “Operation is uncomplicated. There’s just a lever for speed, so training is not difficult, but we do have to train crew members and the commander of the lifeboat in being economical with the power,” Fraende says.
“You use power in two stages. First to get away from the ship, and again when rescue is being conducted, as this gives you full maneuverability, so training focuses on both of these stages.”
With heavy-weather sea trials complete, Viking is finalizing tests on the system’s container before seeking final approval from the Danish Maritime Authority.