5 technologies that can transform shipping

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Innovation is transforming industries around the world and shipping is no different. New digital technology, materials and connectivity promise to making shipping safer, less polluting, and keep passengers and crew entertained.

1. new navigation: digital charts and “satnav”

Up to recently, navigation at sea depended on the same type of paper charts that has been the mainstay of shipping for hundreds of years. But from 2012 onwards, Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) became a mandated technology for all new ships, and is been gradually rolled out to all ships.

Put simply, ECDIS is a satnav system for ships: it uses electronic navigational charts, GPS, radar and automatic identification systems (AIS) to help ships navigate. The technology is expected to reduce the risk of grounding by up to 38%, according to research carried out by Det Norske Veritas (DNV). Read about the Orange Business Services’ ECDIS solution here.

2. new connectivity: improving crew welfare

In the digital age, everyone wants to be connected, and shipping crew are no different. Networks and the Internet are vital part of crew welfare in modern shipping and satellite technology has risen to meet the demand. According to a recent report from NSR, there will be nearly 1 million in-service satellite units in service by 2023, demanding over 160 satellite transponders.

“Bandwidth demand is rising across most ships, and with more capacity available globally, the industry is in a race to meet the needs for seafarers, crew and passengers that want to stay connected,” said Claude Rousseau, NSR Research Director and co-author of the report. 

3. new propulsion: batteries and wind power

Shipping fleets are not known to be environmental trail blazers. In fact research has shown that giant container ships can emit almost a much cancer causing emissions as 50 million cars. Part of the problem is the low-grade bunker oil used in shipping that has almost 2,000 times the sulfur content as the diesel used in cars.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this back in the day when sailing vessels dominated the high seas. Now sail could be making a comeback, with a number of concepts making waves. These include the B9 Shipping’s cargo ship which uses a Dyna-sail system combined with a methane engine, and Japanese company’s Eco Marine Power’s EnergySail’s system. Other environmental initiatives include hybrid ships that use fuel cells or solar panels to complement their diesel engines.

4. new containers: carbon fiber

The steel container invented in the 1950s has revolutionized cargo shipping as we know it today. But with the imbalance of trade worldwide, it can be expensive to ship containers back east. Empty containers have even been used in housing and office blocks.

According to one researcher the steel shipping is long overdue an upgrade. Stephan Lechner, of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy believes that carbon fiber may be the way to go. Because they are lighter they would be easier to use and transport, they can be folded flat for easy transport empty and are easier to scan to detect contents.

5. new customer experience: cruise ships

The Costa Concordia disaster in 2012 put a dent into the public appetite for cruise holidays, but the market is on the up once again. On the safety front ECDIS technology should help prevent grounding accidents at sea, and networks will help passengers update their Facebook profiles while afloat! Cruise ship operators are also trying to outdo each other around customer service, with one of the most far-fetched sounding ships of recent years catching many headlines. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum cruise ship claims to offer robotic bartenders and virtual balconies for those without real ones.

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.