futurenautics – shipping’s technology-enabled future

As anyone involved in shipping will tell you, the industry is currently experiencing the worst downturn in living memory. The numbers of shipping and maritime business bankruptcies are high, access to funding and finance restructuring harder to come by.

Until now commentators have wearily acknowledged that the shipping business is cyclical and shackled to the fortunes of the wider economy. Indeed the Global Marine Trends 2030 Report paints a picture of shipping as a passive reactor to global drivers and circumstances, watching the world change around it as shipping stays, essentially, the same.

The truth is likely to be profoundly different. The Global Marine Trends report sets aside the impact of technology as disruptive but unforeseeable, but the huge impact of new technologies is already apparent. What we’ve termed ‘e-nautics’ describes the transition to new, digital and technological-based standards of operation and monitoring within the maritime space being driven by regulation, commercial necessity and global change. The ‘e-nautic’ agenda is evidenced by IMO’s move towards e-navigation and mandated ECDIS, increased use of voyage optimisation and routing software to reduce fuel costs, and the rising implementation of applications designed to streamline operations and integrate better with customer requirements and systems.

But, for an industry considered to be operating ‘in the stone age’ by business analysts, the real opportunities, and threats, of the accelerating pace of global technological change to shipping and maritime companies have yet to be properly identified and addressed. Earlier this year at Orange Business Live in Prague, Gartner’s Steve Prentice laid out clearly how essential it is for companies to be technologically focussed.

In such difficult times it’s understandable that many shipping companies are focussing on survival and regulatory compliance rather than taking longer-term strategic investment and planning decisions. But this isn’t the picture across all commercial maritime sectors. Buried amongst the grim news are pockets of strong growth and resilient shipping businesses which are already acknowledging the pivotal role which technology has to play in their future.

Shipping needs a paradigm shift in attitude, it must transition IT and technology from a cost-centre to an enabler of business intelligence and innovation at the heart of the organisation and develop a coherent understanding of the technology-enabled trends, opportunities and threats it faces. Collectively we call this Futurenautics, grouped around four key areas:

  • the sentient ship
  • the cyborg crew,
  • shipistics
  • business e-volution

Futurenautics covers everything from smart materials and big data to ingestible sensors for crew safety and learning algorithms which will allow ships to learn and eventually sail themselves.

There are shipping companies which are already beginning to position themselves for the future. At the heart of the big data revolution is the combination of new high-throughput satellites, Ku/Ka-Band VSAT, the cloud and robust land-based networks. The type of data now coming ashore from ships is a fraction of what we will see in the future as the potential of big data to shipping is realised.

As companies utilise the cloud to allow business applications to be accessed both onboard and ashore, terabytes of data will be streamed to shore and collected by company-wide operations. Mining and analysis of this data will bring new transparency, and enable real-time experimentation and monitoring which will inform business decisions and drive product and service innovation—potentially even new multi-sided business models based on ‘exhaust data’.

For many shipping professionals this may sound bewildering, but for those already investing in high-bandwidth IP communications infrastructure, the possibilities are becoming clearer.

Shipping will change, but the extent to which it is the master of its own destiny depends upon the current generation of leaders fully using technology to their advantage. Failure to do so opens the door to new and aggressive cross-industry competitors who most certainly will.  

Over the next few months I’ll look in more depth at the four key areas starting with the smart or “sentient” ships of the future.  But, in the meantime, how seriously are shipping and maritime businesses taking these new trends and technologies, and is it really fair to describe them as ‘stone age’?


image © leeyiutung - Fotolia.com

Roger Adamson

I'm a former Inmarsat executive, and since 2008 I've been CEO of Stark Moore Macmillan, which produces a variety of market research on the maritime market by providing due diligence and working at a strategic level with a wide range of global clients. In 2013 our research and modelling activities led to the launch of Futurenautics, a quarterly journal and web resource investigating maritime’s technology-enabled future.