Emerging technologies: on the cusp of the next maritime evolution

The maritime industry can potentially become safer, cleaner, more secure and efficient. But it depends on whether leaders understand the risks and rewards that new technologies represent and adopt a new technological mindset.

May 16 2019

It surely can’t be a coincidence that some 70% of the human body is made up of water, and that about the same proportion of the planet is covered in it. There is something primal and natural about our relationship with the sea. We sail it to explore “new” lands and to trade. We fish it – sometimes overfish it – to eat; and we research it to extract minerals, broaden our knowledge and improve sustainability.

Over the years, we’ve built bigger, better and stronger ships to do all of the above more efficiently. Indeed, in the past few years, more information has been collected about the oceans than in the entirety of human history that came before. This explosion of data sources – everything from weather systems, ship movements and supply chains to Augmented Reality navigation for very large crude carriers – has the potential to bring new perspectives and insights to light, fundamentally changing the way we understand opportunities and threats. It has the potential to improve safety, security and sustainability, reducing the likelihood of environmental disasters and facilitating new types of trade.

Leaders need a new technological mindset

Unlocking these opportunities requires leaders from across the maritime ecosystem to emerge from their discrete, sea-related silos to come together, to exchange ideas and perspectives, and to help all of us understand the risks and rewards these new technologies represent. The adoption of these new technologies depends not only on the theoretical technical aspects, but – perhaps even more importantly – on their practical application and the business models they can improve.

Key advantages of autonomous ships

One thing technology hasn’t changed is the central role the seas and ships play in our lives. Vessels are now bigger, faster and stronger; they use motors instead of sails, and satellites instead of a compass and the stars – but they still transport more than 90% of global trade. In future, of course, they may do so with fewer people on board, or without any at all. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and all manner of sensors, two Nordic giants of the shipping industry – Wartsila and Kongsberg – have been working on autonomous ships for years. Startups like U.S.-based Shone, and Israel’s Orca AI, may add to the disruption with their own solutions for self-sailing vessels, or maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) calls them.

Not only could this ultimately save crewing, fuel and maintenance costs, but it should also reduce NOx and CO2 emissions, accidents and oil spills. Then there’s the human factor: in an industry where too many people died on the job in the years 2011-2017, it should also save lives. And since AI-powered captains are probably still a few years away, other companies, like U.S.-based Senseye, are working on developing eye-scanning technology to determine stress and fatigue levels in crew members, and then evaluating if they’re fit for duty.

Enhancing maritime security

Maritime security is another issue impacting organizations across the maritime domain, and beyond. Take sanctions on Iran and North Korea. To avoid falling foul of regulators – such as the UN Security Council and the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) – everyone from energy traders to banks and bunkering service providers are required to screen parties and vessels against sanctions lists. Failure to do so can result in financial and/or criminal penalties – never mind the reputational damage.

Fortunately, technologies exist to help organizations avoid this fate. Applying machine learning to a combination of satellite data, ship ownership, vessel activities and beyond can help us discern when a vessel’s operations indicate it’s likely to be facilitating the evasion of sanctions, or carrying out business lawfully. The same applies when vessels are trafficking arms, people or drugs, or engaging in illegal fishing.

But even this has its limits. AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders can be manipulated, spoofed or just drop out in congested seas, much like a cellphone at a concert. That’s why new satellite technologies could bring a whole new level of visibility – and security – to the seas. This year, ICEYE is due to launch a constellation of radar satellites capable of imaging the entire planet every hour, even when it’s dark or cloudy. It’ll be joined in the increasingly crowded skies by Hawkeye360 and Kleos Space, both of which plan to launch Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to geolocate vessels via radio transmissions and radar.

Improving the efficiency of supply chains

One of the most technology-savvy aspects of the maritime domain today is around the efficiency of supply chains. In April, Nautilus Labs raised $11M in a Microsoft-led funding round to further develop AI to help fleet operators reduce fuel consumption and optimize performance – reducing costs and emissions. Data analytics startup Parsyl had been working on sensing cargoes in transit, enabling real-time detection of hazards – supporting insurers and shippers, and making sure that sensitive cargo such as food and vaccines go unharmed.

It’s no coincidence that both Nautilus Labs and Parsyl, as well as many others, are building business models that aren’t only serving the industry, but also improving the greater good of public safety and environmental sustainability. Several ocean-focused technology accelerators and investors emerged over the past few years, promoting companies and ventures at the nexus of innovation and sustainability, such as the Sustainable Ocean Alliance and Katapult Ocean.

And this is just the beginning. There are now gas-imaging cameras helping tug boats maneuver LPG tankers more safely; wind-propelled ocean drones and solar-powered weather sensors are hoovering up ocean data; and many more technologies are emerging that show the maritime domain is on the cusp of the next stage of its evolution. It’s an exciting time to be a part of it all. One can only wonder what the next decade or two might bring.

Windward is proud to be hosting the “Sea: The Future” conference on May 22 at London’s Trinity House. The conference will look at how technologies, such as artificial intelligence, can help us interact with the maritime domain in a more efficient, profitable, and sustainable way.

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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