Digitalisation of the Maritime Sector: Technical Developments and Opportunities

Regarding the digitalisation of maritime business the saying of the Roman warlord Pompeius “navigare necesse est” is still relevant today, regardless of 3D-printing and other technologies allegedly influencing the nautical world.

Even if internet of things (IoT), digitalisation, block chain and 3D-printing are discussed as the main factors (negatively) impacting on global shipping markets, it has to be stated that this market is still mainly driven by GDP, trade, energy demand and trade politics. The global GDP growth is still on a healthy track and 77 % of global trade (in total: 13,2 billion tons) are seaborne. One should further know that out of this 77 % not less than 43 % is energy-related, dry and liquid bulk. Shipping of containerized goods follows only in third place. In particular, the transportation of liquid bulk in the form of LNG is still a growing business. The increase of trade, better rates and lower ship newbuilding prices will trigger new orders. It can be further expected that the container cargo growth will be high. In this growth chemicals and wooden products will take the lead. Even if the container fleet is still young it can be foreseen that some 5 000 TEU + ships will be replaced in the next few years. New regulations from the IMO and state authorities will accelerate ship removals. As the following figures show, the shipping market is of considerable importance for the whole German economic: the turnover in the Shipping Economy amounts to approximately EUR 50 billion p. a with approximately 400.000 employees.

Considering all this it is worth having a closer look at the latest technology developments in the shipbuilding sector – often discussed under the slogan “Maritime 4.0” meaning digital transformation in the maritime sector.
The development of digitalisation – as opposed to Industry 4.0 onshore – can be easily explained with some land mark developments in the shipping industry: In 1838 with the “SS Great Western” the first purpose-built transatlantic steam ship conducted its maiden voyage thus paving the way for the development from sail to steam ships. In a second step diesel engines were used for example on the “MS Selandia” – one of the first ocean going motor ships. In 1969 automation found its way into the shipping industry: on the “MS Taimyr” with the first fully digital engine control system on board. The final stage of Maritime 4.0 as part of the digital transformation is for example the use of cyber physical systems as in the port of Singapore or unmanned vessels.

Maritime Big Data Solutions

The first example for new developments in shipbuilding technologies is the handling of so called “Big Data” on board vessels.

Under the expression big data one understands data sets that are so voluminous and complex that traditional data-processing application software is inadequate to deal with them. The challenges in handling such big data include data storage and analysis as well as sharing and transfer.

In the maritime world big data can help to rationalize class surveys and the support from shore side of the vessel. At this point in time one has to recognize that ship owners do collect huge amounts of data with equipment such as electronic chart display (“ECDIS”), ballast control systems, voyage and engine data logger. All that equipment is already used on ships to achieve the optimum trim of the ship, to conduct performance monitoring, weather routing, engine monitoring and remote maintenance, but this is only on a case to case basis and is fragmented. The current situation is that on board the vessel various data is collected with multiple applications, however, each stake-holder like class societies, shipyards and manufacturers handle them on a ship-by-ship basis and do not combine and make their knowledge available for the others.

In future it will be necessary and beneficial for all stake-holders that all data relating to a ship is available on a common platform with security and access control. This will allow manufacturers of main engines, shipyards and ship owners to share their data, and thereby allowing improvement of the efficient use of the vessel.

Improvement of the energy efficiency of ships

The largest part of the energy input in form of fuel on a ship is used to overcome the hull friction i.e. for the propulsion. Further losses incur in form of heat, exhaust gases, wave and wind and auxiliaries.

In future the ship efficiency will be improved by using big data for example to optimize the energy management system of the ship, especially taking into consideration voyage plans, weather data, load conditions of the ship, power generation and propulsion systems. The use of more lightweight material like aluminium and plastics can already be observed in the shipbuilding industry today. Additionally, fuel injection systems which are electronically-controlled will help to significantly reduce the overall fuel consumption of the vessel. In this category further hybrid power generation systems have to be mentioned. Hybrid electric ships offer the flexibility to let engines operate at variable speeds and significantly reduce noise and vibration and emissions in port and coastal areas. Driven by the latest IMO-Regulations – requiring a reduction of NOx and SOx output of the vessels – LNG and LPG will be used as alternative fuels in ship engines.

Unmanned vessels

The last and final step in Maritime 4.0 will be unmanned vessels. The idea of unmanned vessels is not completely new in the shipbuilding industry. The discussions in this direction have already been dragging on for decades, but it is only now that we actually have the technical means – with big data – to let this dream come true.

In principle such vessels do not differ from “normal” ships, however, they come with much more digitalisation on board: To allow unmanned vessels they must be equipped with a range of sensors observing the maritime environment and navigational intelligence ensuring self-navigation. Unmanned vessels for example will need a vision based obstacle target detection and tracking system thus ensuring safe voyage of the ship. Such a system has to be combined with the radar of the ship to support autonomous manoeuvres and all the data has to be provided on shore.