Royal Caribbean Group’s Icon of the Seas is a testbed for technology

The vessel, which launches in 2024, will feature numerous innovative firsts for Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean Group’s Icon of the Seas is a testbed for technology

Royal Caribbean Group

Icon of the Seas successfully sailed on the open ocean for the first time during sea trials in June 2023 in Turku, Finland

By Susan Parker |

Turning innovative ideas into reality is rarely an easy task, but it is particularly challenging when building a new cruise ship. This has certainly been the case for Royal Caribbean Group (RCG), Finnish shipbuilder Meyer Turku, architecture firm Wilson Bulter and the multiple other partners involved in building Royal Caribbean International’s newest prototype, the 250,800gt Icon of the Seas.

When the design process began around six years ago, some of the solutions needed to make ideas reality simply did not exist, but just months from delivery in January 2024, Icon of the Seas is almost complete and encompasses a host of innovations. The project has required RCG’s in-house teams and partners across its supply chain to continually push boundaries.

“Building these complex ships is a difficult journey,” says Harri Kulovaara, executive vice president of maritime and new building at RCG. “It is not a straight line. It is how you work together with the best partners and best minds with a clear goal. All the hard work is basically behind the visual panels: the machinery, the air conditioning, electrical cables, technical execution, and more. This is the biggest and most complex maritime project outside the military and oil and gas industries.”

Icon of the Seas represents a major milestone in RCG’s journey to building a carbon-neutral ship by 2035, says Jason Liberty, the corporation’s president and CEO. “Icon gets us from the first innings to the second innings [of nine],” he says, using a baseball term. “On decarbonisation we have very best minds in the maritime world focused on emerging technology to find out how we transition to an energy platform of the future.”

The newbuild will be the first Royal Caribbean International ship to be powered by LNG, hence the brand’s choice to partner with Meyer Turku, which has constructed LNG carriers in the past. “It took us over 10 years to make it possible to have LNG on a cruise ship,” says Tim Meyer, CEO of Meyer Turku. “We were not just developing the technology but the regulations, which we did together with class society, DNV.”

The ship will be equipped with two 3.7 tonne LNG tanks in separate compartments and six Wärtsilä dual-fuel engines, housed in two separate engine rooms. Whilst the ship will use LNG as the main fuel used (bunkering weekly in CocoCay in The Bahamas), it will use marine gas oil (MGO) as a backup (bunkering in Florida’s PortMiami). The vessel can also hook up to shore power in port wherever it is provided.

When asked about how LNG stacks up pricewise with MGO, RCG’s vice president and head of environmental, social and governance Nick Rose says: “When you account for the energy you get out of LNG, it has a higher energy density (49 joules per MMBtu/14MWh), it is roughly on a financial par with MGO (42 joules per MMBtu/11MWh). Volume-wise it gets complicated. LNG takes up so much more space – it’s less energy per volume but it provides more energy on a per molecule basis. The fuel itself is less carbon dense and more energy efficient which makes up the difference in volume, so it is a step in the right direction.”

Icon of the Seas can easily accommodate these larger LNG tanks as it is 10 per cent larger than Royal Caribbean International’s 226,838gt Oasis-class vessels, which are some of the biggest cruise ships in the world. However, the LNG tanks are not the reason for the ship’s increased size, and nor is the desire for greater economies of scale. “The size was based on the experiences we wanted to bring to the ship,” says Liberty, noting that it will be able to accommodate 7,600 guests and 2,350 crew, compared with 6,771 and 2,109 respectively on the Oasis vessels. “There is a lot more public space and less lower berths, but more people in the staterooms.”

LNG is just one of many technologies RCG is exploring to help reduce the environmental footprint of its ships. One such initiative is fuel cell technology; a project that has proven to be especially challenging within the Icon timeframe but one that RCG believes is promising for future newbuilds as it pursues ways to generate power onboard and transition to the energy platform of the future.

Fuel cells are the “ultimate challenge”, according to Rose. “We know they aren’t the singular answer, but it will help us bridge the gap of understanding three main things: how to use fuel cell technology, the scale of it, and how you can build it into the hydrolisation of the vessel itself. There was never a time when fuel cells would be brought in and take over; they are simply part of the equation. You have to take small steps to make big strides.”

RCG has invested more in boosting energy efficiency on Icon of the Seas than on any other ship to date, says Simon Mockler, the company’s senior director for newbuild decarbonisation. “We have pulled out every tool in the box. For example, we iterated hundreds of hull forms before we found the one that was just right for Icon [the brand’s first parabolic bow].”

The air lubrication system (designed by Foreship and installed by Meyer Turku) will reduce friction further as will the (weekly) robotic hull cleaning from DG Diving Group, another first for RCG. In addition, the ship will have waste heat capture systems in various spots provided by different vendors.

“LNG gives us opportunities,” says Stig Eriksen, chief engineer at Royal Caribbean International. “We are recovering the cold from the LNG, which is a cryogenic liquid, to increase the efficiency of the air-conditioning plant. We also have new technology where we are reusing the heat produced by the power plant to produce freshwater onboard. There are different ways of capturing energy which we would have lost in the past.”

Another first for RCG and the industry is Scanship’s microwave-assisted pyrolysis (MAPs) waste-to-energy plant, which turns dry food and waste into energy. “This is a new way of handling waste onboard the ship,” says Eriksen. “With it we can produce energy which goes into the energy pool for the ship to power things like the reverse osmosis system.”

The ship will boast structural firsts too. “The architectural elements of this ship – for example The Pearl opening up the ship to water – are technical marvels,” says Liberty. This dome-like structure is at the heart of The Royal Promenade and links two decks together.

This feature is the pivot on which surrounding spaces sit. “It supports the decks above it and enables the three-deck high windows [and views out to sea],” says Jennifer Goswami, director of product development at RCG. “The superstructure that runs through it allows the distribution of the weight through the ship.”

The innovation also fits in with RCG’s ‘water, water, everywhere’ ethos for this ship class. “Icon of the Seas has been completely redesigned from a construction and design perspective so guests know they are on the ocean,” says Goswami. “For example, you can see the ocean for the first time from Central Park.”

Another “engineering masterpiece” is the AquaDome, according to Meyer. RCG chairman Richard Fain drew the initial design on the back of a napkin and worked with Kulovaara, Scott Butler of Wilson Butler, and more than 20 other architects and designers to make it a reality. It was a complicated process.

“It was not just about building the glass structure but also putting it together and lifting the whole structure on top, where we had to calculate what happens and how many points we needed to connect in order to lift it,” explains Meyer.

There are lots of smaller innovations onboard too. One example is the destination programme for the 22 lifts, which was designed by manufacturer Kone to minimise waiting times. Kone also devised a system whereby the lifts going up harness the electricity generated by those going down. In addition, there will be automatic gangways onboard for the first time, which has necessitated RCG to collaborate with ports.

Hundreds of tiny elements of the design have required research and testing, for example the harnesses for the Crown’s Edge experience in the Thrill Island neighbourhood. Niklas Fabritius, RCG’s project manager for the neighbourhood, sourced them from a Bulgarian manufacturer. He was also responsible for finding the Estonian manufacturer who created 569 ‘wooden’ planks for the waterpark from moulds made of distressed wood.

Discussing the sourcing of new materials, Fabritius explains that some of the suppliers involved had never worked on a ship before and were new to maritime regulations. He said that certification could take anywhere between six and 12 months with different certification required for different zones, for example public spaces versus galleys.

However, the pandemic provided an unexpected advantage here, according to Kulovaara. “The team used the time well to focus on the design,” he says. “There were so many novel things and new aspects. We used that time extensively to go through systematically our design which enabled us, when we started production, to really shoot forward.”

Kulovaara is keen to point out what makes newbuilds such as Icon of the Seas possible: “You need to be really passionate about these things and have the perseverance and teams who are invested to do this work.”

Liberty adds: “As obsessed as we are with delivering a perfect vacation, we are as obsessed on how to make a better impact on the environment.”

He is confident that Icon of the Seas will set new standards in terms of both aspects, while also driving success for the business. “This ship, when it debuts in January, will be the most profitable, highest returning ship for the brand, the company and the industry,” he says.

Outfitting an Icon

CFR also asked Chelsom, ETC, GDS Pioneering, IRON Pump, NAPA and Robos Contract Furniture how their products and solutions will enhance the operational efficiency and guest experience onboard Royal Caribbean International’s first Icon-class ship. Read more from each partner here.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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