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Sensing a shift

Maritime opens up to new technologies

Digitalization of industries has been a concern for the maritime industry for some time now. A traditionally analogue sector, it has been relatively conservative towards adopting the technologies that are revolutionizing other markets. Yet it seems the tides are turning as a huge number of exciting technologies are increasing in prevalence.

Just as in many industries, digitalization offers the shipping sector the promise of increased efficiency, lowered costs, and improved communication. With these benefits in mind, and driven by a push for more sustainable shipping from authorities, adoption of new technologies is gathering speed.

Knowledge and communication equal safer shipping

A major focus for the maritime sector is safety, and technologies for safer shipping are advancing rapidly. Many of these technologies surround improved communications and easier navigation based on big data and the Internet of Things (IoT). While current IoT-based solutions may require initial investment, they can deliver benefits of cost efficiency, simple onboarding, and optimized safety.

“A large array of permanent sensors will provide forewarnings of extreme natural events.”

Global Marine Technology Trends, Lloyd’s Register

Big data can provide a huge amount of information, transparency, and opportunities created from improved data analytics. Sensor buoys at sea can gather vital information on human activity or weather conditions, and wireless sensors on a ship’s components show how a vessel is performing. Crewmembers and operators can use data gathered from these sensors to support better decisions such as when to extend or retract stabilizers. Open networks have been created using automatic identification systems (AIS) which provide better transparency and easier tracking of vessels, helping captains optimize their routes for safer navigation. Advanced monitoring systems gather a huge depth of knowledge which is then communicated via IoT connectivity. Artificial intelligence and machine learning systems can even carry this out automatically, offering additional capabilities such as decision support or detection of abnormal conditions or anomalies.

Putting efficiency on automatic

Autonomous technologies are steadily progressing in maritime. Autonomous vessels are already undergoing testing and some, such as the C-Enduro from L3 ASV or Norway’s autonomous electric passenger ferry, have even taken to the water. While there are some exciting autonomous ship designs on the horizon, fully autonomous vessels are still a way off from widespread operation. On the way to autonomous ships however, advancements are being made in smaller applications of autonomous technologies for onboard or in dock.

Robots, for example, can be used to carry out maintenance or inspections where risks to crew safety are higher. And as technology advances, robots will become much more compact and adept at reaching places that human crew members would have previously been unable to. In the future, we are likely to see robots receiving a much higher level of autonomy and independent decision-making. This will allow them to be applied as economical and reliable workers, reducing risks to personnel safety.

Self-docking ships are another promising application of autonomous technology. Auto-docking vessels are programmed with variables such as wind speed, weight, depth, and roll as it approaches dock. Taking these into account, a ship is able to perform docking autonomously and with precision. There are even systems that have been created using photographic and infrared sensors that can be installed on any vessel to allow self-docking. This high level of precision reduces time taken and minimizes fuel consumption for docking, thus maximizing efficiency.

Changing the blueprints: digitalizing shipbuilding

Technology is also advancing in shipbuilding and design. With the use of digital twins and simulation software, design, construction, and repairs can be performed in a way that minimizes resources through precise calculations. Combining this with additive manufacturing can further improve efficiency through minimized waste resources and accelerated production times. As 3D printing builds up a material in layers, parts can be made hollow such as this prototype propeller blade from Naval Group and Centrale Nantes.

“The one-third scale hollow blade demonstrator was printed in stainless steel in less than one hundred hours, [with] weight gains of over 40% compared to conventional processes.”

Press Release, Naval Group

Ship operators will benefit even further when using these technologies in combination with a plethora of new advanced materials that are undergoing research. These are being re-designed with properties adjusted specifically to endure harsh shipping conditions. New alloys will be more resistant to corrosion, high-strength steel will increase durability and new composite materials will reduce weight for improved operational efficiency. There is even the possibility of self-repairing materials.

As technology advances, so do cyber threats

Of course, with the rise of digitization and connectivity, cybersecurity becomes an increasing challenge. Should a network be targeted by a professional hacker, sensitive information could be leaked. GPS spoofing also presents an issue, with several high-profile incidents in recent years. However, guidelines and advisory documents are already emerging from large organizations, including guidelines from the IMO. These will likely develop into standard practices across the industry. These could even be taken into account in future regulations as shipping becomes increasingly digitalized.


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