Making Ships Smart and Connected

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Concept of fast or instant shipping
 

 

The high seas are getting connected. While oceangoing ships now can contact land via radio and satellite, in the future shipping companies will be able to track vessels and many aspects of their operations constantly, in real time.

Smart, connected technology will not just make ships more visible but also should improve safety. The record already is improving: 75 ships went down in 2014 according to the latest data available, the lowest in a decade. When the El Faro container ship was lost in a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015, with 33 crew lost, it took almost a month to find the wreckage.

Still, “it’s not as easy to lose a ship as an airplane,” says Ørnulf Jan Rødseth, senior scientist, maritime transport systems, at the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (Marintek) in Trondheim, Norway. “Today not all ships are connected, but it’s increasingly common. The crew needs to be in touch with operations at home and with families.”

Aqua satellite - 3D renderMost big container ships already have high-capacity satellite communications. “They have Internet of Things systems on board to collect data from the ship and send [it] to shore,” he says, adding that demand is strong enough that some satellite operators now focus just on shipping—and coverage is improving, especially on the Atlantic.

One possibility is that connected ships could become autonomous. “The assumption is that ships can operate more-or-less on their own in less traffic or wide fairways. But they would need remote control in congested waters,” Mr. Rødseth says.

An autonomous ship would have to be continuously monitored by a shore control center to make sure all systems are operating correctly and so that human operators could intervene if necessary, he says, similar to metro systems in some cities.

Crew negligence was associated with three of the top five causes of marine insurance claims in 2014, the most recent year for data, according to “Safety and Shipping Review 2015” by Allianz AG. The International Marine Organization tallied 1,051 lives lost in 2012, the most recent data.

Just by removing people from the ship, you remove lots of incidents and deaths in shipping,” Mr. Rødseth says. It could even affect piracy: “If you don’t have a crew on the ship, there’s no one to ransom,” he notes.

Without a crew, a ship could be configured completely differently. The crew space is proportionally greater on smaller ships, such as for inland waterways or coastal shipping. On some vessels, the crew—including cabins, workspaces, kitchen, lifeboats and so on—take up a significant part of the space, he says. Without a captain at the helm, there’s no need for a steering tower, reducing drag. For a 100-meter ship, a crew-free design could result in 25% to 40% energy savings.

Shore crane loading containers in freight shipThe problem is, ships are extremely expensive, so it isn’t possible to just build a prototype of an oceangoing vessel. Instead, inland waterways are likely to be the first movers, because the fleet is old and they are relatively expensive to operate, Mr. Rødseth says. In Belgium, Catholic University of Leuven is part of a group researching autonomous shuttle barges on inland waterways.

Smart, connected technology also is coming to cargo. Intermodal containers have seen improvements, such as refrigeration, since Malcolm P. McLean invented them in 1956. But nobody knows exactly how many containers are lost at sea. The World Shipping Council estimates 675 a year.

Traxens, a Marseille, France, logistics technology company, aims to revolutionize the intermodal container process by better tracking containers remotely.

“Up to now, when ship containers are sent around the world they don’t generate any data automatically,” says Tim Baker, Traxens’ director of marketing and communications. “If a container is taken off a truck or put on rail and if somebody doesn’t note it manually, or if somebody forgets a transfer, then there’s no information system that’s aware of this, and nobody can take corrective action.”

Shipping lines collectively handle 20 million to 25 million containers per year.

If they know where containers are,” Mr. Baker says, “they can optimize resources, reduce transit times.”

They can also eliminate unnecessary trips of empty containers being returned to the shipyard when another empty container is heading to a different customer down the road for loading.

Previous efforts by companies to track containers tended to focus on individual units. “That isn’t scalable,” Mr. Baker says, because the company putting cargo in the container has to get a tracking device, install it, and remove it at the end of the journey, for each of many containers.

Traxens focuses on a solution for the entire industry, using technology-equipped containers that keep their tracking systems for a minimum of three years of battery life. The containers’ sensors monitor temperature, shock, vibration, humidity and so on, and communicate by radio with other containers on the ship to save battery life. Rather than each container transmitting data, the mesh of containers chooses the container best suited for transmitting—good battery level, clear view of the sky—and sends the assembled data to shore periodically using mobile-phone technology.

The shipping industry has reduced unit costs by building bigger ships, but “that way of optimizing has come to an end,” Mr. Baker says. “The next step is data.”

 

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Lower emissions on the high seas

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Container ship in the port of Rotterdam, Holland

Ships are the cheapest and most energy-efficient way to transport goods around the world. Cargo vessels on average produce 15-21 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per tonne of cargo carried a kilometer—compared with 540 grams of CO2 per tonne-kilometer for air freight. Yet, global shipping is so big that it accounts for 2.6% of global CO2 emissions. That would rank it sixth globally among nations, just behind Japan and ahead of Germany.

And CO2 isn’t the only pollutant. Ships burn heavy fuel oil, which is a waste product of the petroleum industry and the reason shipping is so cheap. This fuel releases a large amount of the pollutants sulfur dioxide, known as SOx, and nitrogen oxide, or NOx.

Sulfur is one of the main challenges for the industry, with regulations cutting the sulfur content of fuel to 0.1% since the start of 2015, compared with 1% previously, for the Baltic Sea, North Sea, U.S. and Canada coasts and around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The big game-changer in the industry at the moment is sulfur regulations,” says Simon Bennett, director of policy and external relations at the International Chamber of Shipping, an industry group based in London. A cap at 0.5% sulfur content, from 3.5%, is supposed to go global in 2020, with the tighter limits continuing in certain coastal areas, he says.

Aerial view of tankers and shipsOne low-hanging fruit in the quest for sustainability is slow steaming. When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, ship owners found it was more profitable to have all their ships busy at sea, even if half empty, rather than at berth, says Sotiris Raptis, shipping and aviation officer at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based nongovernmental agency that promotes sustainable transportation policy at the European Union and global levels.

In an attempt to prevent freight rates from falling due to depressed demand after the 2008 economic crisis and in order to reduce consumption of fuel—which makes up 70% of operating costs—ships slowed down. Fuel consumption is proportional to the cube of the ship’s speed, so at the upper limit, going a little bit faster requires a lot more fuel.

“You’re carrying the same freight weight the same distance. But your costs are much lower,” explains Bill Hemmings, director, aviation and shipping at Transport & Environment.

By extension, lower fuel consumption means lower emissions of CO2, NOx and SOx, Messrs. Hemmings and Raptis say. Shipping emissions fell 10% since 2008 thanks to slow steaming, and even though global trade has picked up again, slow steaming continues.

In addition, “there are a lot of incremental measures that ship operators are looking at,” says Paul Gilbert, lecturer in climate change, sustainability and project management at the University of Manchester in the U.K. “For example, weather routing, propeller arrangements, altering the trim, looking at the substructure of the hull, using different paints and microbubbles under the vessel.”

Other technologies involve bigger changes, such as wind power. That can be with fixed sails, Mr. Hemmings says, or kite-like sky sails for routes with favorable trade winds.

“Funnily enough,” he says, “shipping is the only mode of transport that came from a sustainable origin, and it is going to have to go back to that technology.”

Beached container shipMore advanced technology requires a bigger investment, but ship owners don’t get the benefits because they aren’t the ones paying for the fuel.

“The interests are split,” Mr. Raptis says. “The charterer”—a retailer or manufacturer—”rents the ship and pays for the fuel. The market doesn’t know how efficient ships are.”

In 2015, the EU adopted a requirement that, from 2018, ships calling at EU ports report their emissions, which will give charterers a way to compare individual ships.

Emissions aren’t the only sustainability issue in shipping. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires that new ships treat ballast water, which is pumped in to stabilize ships when they aren’t carrying cargo, says Mr. Bennett of the ICS. Treatment will keep invasive species from being transported in the water to foreign habitats around the world. Some existing ships will probably need to be retrofitted with very expensive treatment systems from next year or shortly after.

Ship recycling is another area of concern. The IMO adopted the Hong Kong Convention for ship recycling in 2009, but it hasn’t yet been ratified by the requisite 15 nations with a sufficient presence in world shipping and ship recycling. The EU stepped up pressure with a similar measure, calling for an inventory of hazardous materials, including their weight and where on the ship they are used, with some materials, such as asbestos, prohibited. The EU regulation will apply to EU-flagged ships as well as other ships calling at EU ports.

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock