From unmanned vessels to artificial intelligence applications, digital transformation is giving shipping a 21st-century reboot.
In the era of automation and digital transformation, the shipping industry is undergoing dramatic changes to increase efficiency and safety at the port and on the high seas. From small boats to massive container ships, these seafaring vessels are integral components of the global economy. Ships transport approximately 90% of all worldwide commerce, according to the United Nations.
Maritime companies are developing the next generation of autonomous ships and leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more to design 21st-century smart ports. That said, inherent within digital transformation is of course the transformative process itself. Historically, some ports have relied on rather low-tech, manual solutions.
“They have guys out with ropes and they measure the length of the ship or the width of the ship and then they decide which dock it’s going to go into,” Kyle Connor, Global Transportation Principal at Cisco, said.
At times, the overhaul involves updating an existing technical infrastructure comprised of less sophisticated components.
“I’ve gotten on ships and there are routers and switches you buy at Best Buy onboard,” Connor said.
To assist, digital twin environments allow organizations to leverage a vast set of sensors to oversee operations. Ports are now using smart sensors and real-time data to gain a better understanding of inbound maritime traffic, port size, and live weather conditions, and more. However, as conditions change so too does the margin for error.
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In shallow water, the tidal environment will play a major role in scheduling, especially for larger vessels. Buoys equipped with a suite of sensors can monitor tidal changes, water temperature, and more. All of these metrics can help provide a clearer understanding of real-time conditions.
Instead of sending out a crew to check these floating monitor systems, the equipment can be fitted with gateways to relay information to the mainland in real time, Connor explained.
“I don’t have to wait for two-thirds of the tide or one-third of the tide or an approximate guess. I can say, I know exactly how much your drag is. You’ve told me that ahead of time. I know exactly what the environment of my water is because I’m actively monitoring that and now I can align those two digital twins; the Port Authority and the shipping vessel, to connect quicker,” Connor said.
Once these various sensors, ships, and port systems are interconnected, artificial intelligence systems can then optimize maritime scheduling as conditions change.
“Then you send [data] into an AI environment to say, OK, you know of all of my parts and pieces,” he said, adding: “You know all of their parts and pieces. Where do we align the best? Which dock, which train? And then how do I start lining up the trucks and the trains to offload?”
Artificial intelligence and machine learning systems are also playing a crucial role in ports and on the high seas.
These insights can reduce bottlenecks at ports and reduce the risk of accidents in a host of environments.
AI-enhanced crane operations
Once the ships safely arrive in the dock, the vessels will need to be loaded and unloaded efficiently and safely. To do so, industrial cranes are used to transfer containers around the port.
Moving tonnage of cargo as winds gust through a port can compromise the structural integrity of these cranes over time. At times this fatigue may lead to catastrophic collapse.
By monitoring the structure and the meteorological environment at the port, officials can adjust the docking and crane operations to increase safety. Cranes can be equipped with cameras, an anemometer, and other sensors to monitor the torque of the structure during operation. Machine learning can then analyze this data to monitor trends and predict failures before they happen.
“The ability to collect that data wasn’t as readily available. They still had it in the vehicle, but some mechanic had to go out there and go look at the diagnostics bus. Now it’s all being brought in real time,” Connor said.
Aside from monitoring structural failure, smart port solutions are also addressing human operator fatigue. In the past, crane operators were tasked with often grueling conditions and slim margins for error, Connor explained.
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“There used to be a person who crawled up a long ladder and sat in a cockpit and looked at cameras and controlled the crane for four to five hours. The fatigue is outrageous. They’re constantly fighting wind pressures. You’re looking at several monitors and you’re staring down 10 or 12 stories of glass, right? The fatigue on your brain and your visual cortex is outrageous.”
By reducing operator fatigue, port authorities can reduce the risk of error during loading and unloading operations. As ports embrace a vast suite of technology infrastructure, the working conditions for these operators also improve.
“Those same operators are now doing it remotely in an air-conditioned environment and can take 10 minute breaks and walk to the cooler and call their wife or whatever the case might be. So the fatigue is going down just through automating those functions and remotely operating them,” Connor said.
AI seafarers and the future of shipping
This maritime digital transformation is by no means reserved for the physical port. The burgeoning autonomous shipping industry, in particular, is reimagining the way cargo fares the high seas. Depending on the sophistication of the vessel, autonomous ships function in either a manned or unmanned capacity.
A fully autonomous ship leverages a vast suite of sensors including GPS, cameras, radar, in some instances, LIDAR, and more for operations, according to Oskar Levander, SVP of concepts and innovations at Kongsberg Maritime. Levander believes this autonomous navigation capacity could reduce the number of maritime accidents.
“Depending on which study you believe it’s somewhere between 75 or 95% of all Marine accidents are caused by human error and a lot of these errors that the people do is due to the fact that they are fatigued. They are tired. They are not concentrating and that is where automation is really strong and can help,” said Levander.
By reducing the number of crew members on board, the ship can be constructed without the life-support systems used to accommodate seafarers such as galleys, housing compartments, food storage, freezers, restrooms, and more. With fewer necessary structures onboard, ship size can be greatly reduced minimizing construction cost and fuel consumption.
Navigating the high seas without seafarers is one challenge, however, a fully autonomous ship also needs additional onboard sensors to monitor the systems.
“You need to have the automation and control of the vessel, but you also need to know the health and state of the vessel. That everything is functioning and up to date, so that the system knows where it is. So, it all goes into this kind of almost like [a] virtual chief engineer that this is monitoring the vessel internally,” Levander said.
One way to avoid failure onboard is to build out redundancy; creating backup systems for each system in the event of a malfunction. However, duplicating equipment can be an unnecessarily expensive undertaking. Instead, as Levander explained, machine learning systems can analyze trends in data to predict maintenance failures before they happen.
Cybersecurity at sea
An autonomous unmanned ship involves an intricate network of sensors and communication to safely navigate the high seas. However, in the era of data breaches and high-profile ransomware attacks, an interconnected smart ship also introduces cybersecurity risks.
“It’s a risk more than reality right this minute. GPS are pretty hard to spoof. The military has done a pretty good job about that and, right now, most of the autonomous controls are following GPS. They’re also talking on multiple communications satellites,” Connor said. “So it’s pretty hard to get in, but everyone recognizes [that] the more we rely on it, the more it will become an attack point. Just like anything else.”
Levander reiterated a similar sentiment about the concerns related to a cybersecurity attack on an autonomous ship at sea. He believes the level of difficulty required to infiltrate the onboard systems simply would not be worth the upfront effort.
“If you look at the systems we are building up. I think for [those] kinds of efforts, it’s easier to rob a bank. That you also need to remember that, what’s the gain compared to what’s the effort into breaking into something,” said Levander.
To test current capabilities and vulnerabilities to cyberattacks, Kongsberg has brought in “ethical hackers” to attempt to penetrate these systems, according to Levander.
Automation and human seafaring labor
At the core of the discussion surrounding the digital transformation and automation in shipping remains: What happens to the seafarers when the ships go fully autonomous? We spoke with David Heindel, secretary-treasurer of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), to learn more about the future of human labor in an increasingly automated industry.
“We’re not pushing back on automation. We’ve had automation in the maritime industry since the sails left the vessels back in the early 1900s. We embrace automation,” Heindel said.
Heindel has worked in the maritime industry for nearly 50 years and spent time as a seafarer before becoming an SIU official. In that time, the industry has undergone transformational change. Needless to say, seafaring in the 21st century requires more than a vast knowledge of wet knots and constellations.
“The days of being a seafarer and just being able to tie knots and lift the sail and do those menial tasks that were required years ago is completely changed,” Heindel said.
For the time being, Heindel doesn’t believe the technology to fully replace an experienced seafarer is there. Autonomous shipping in its current form and its threat to the future of human seafaring is more of a possibility rather than a real occupational threat at the moment, according to Heindel.
“Does [automation] make life a little easier and perhaps [even] more precise, less possibility of having human error? Yes. To a degree,” Heindel said. “But when it comes to maritime, having people on board a vessel to determine whether a vessel should head in a particular direction to avoid a storm, you don’t really have that same intelligence. Even with AI, you don’t have that intelligence necessarily today for a vessel to make a judgment.”
However, Heindel leaves the door open to the possibility of AI one day surpassing the capabilities and instincts of even a seasoned seafarer.
“Now, could they have that in the future? Yes, they could have it in the future, but there’s nothing better than having a seafarer on there saying, ‘Listen, based on my experience, we need to make an adjustment on navigation to avoid putting the ship at risk,'” Heindel said.
For the time being, Heindel sees seafarer recruiting, training, and onboarding as imperatives components of ensuring the occupational future of human seafarers.
“If we don’t bring in the right [people] into the industry, it’s just a matter of time before there is no industry. And in order for us to do that, we need to make sure that we recruit people that are willing to constantly upgrade themselves to this ever-changing industry. And it is ever evolving, whether it be automation or just in regulation,” Heindel said.
Shifting seafaring labor force
Various companies are investing in the future of autonomous shipping, however, it’s important to remember that these upgrades will be adopted slowly over the course of decades. As Levander explains, the average life expectancy of a ship is nearly a quarter of a century. The next fleet of fully autonomous ships will be phased into operation as older ships reach the end of their seafaring lifespans.
Historically, automation has led to reduced human labor in some instances. Approximately 1.7 million manufacturing positions have been replaced by robotic automation since 2000, according to a recent Oxford Economics report. In other occurrences, automation has created new jobs for humans.
Whether it’s pneumatic valves reducing laborious tasks onboard or remotely overseeing an autonomous vessel half a world away, some would argue that automation is actually increasing the well-being of seafarers in the interim.
“If I was a seafarer, I would not be concerned that I would lose my job, but on the contrary, I would see it as a good opportunity to actually be able to do my job from land and from shore and have a normal family life while still being able to navigate and control ships,” Levander said.
“Where would you rather be?” he asked. “Out in a small vessel in the North Sea and in the middle of a hurricane, or sit in a control room onshore, remotely, supervising [an] autonomous ship?”