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Government publishes research on maritime technology sector

The report outlines opportunities and recommendations for the industry in areas such as autonomous systems and artificial intelligence

The UK government has published the research it commissioned into opportunities in the maritime technology sector, with a focus on areas such as big data analytics, smart ships and autonomous systems.

The research, carried out by Maritime Research and Innovation (MarRI) UK, was funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) and carried out by the London School of Economics and NLA International.

In the study, the benefits of the research, development and commercialisation of new smart shipping technologies to the UK are all considered.

Providing an overview of the industry, the report is aimed at policymakers, industry and investors, and is also expected to inform DfT policy. It makes recommendations on possible interventions in the sector to deliver on the government’s transformation ambitions for the maritime sector in the next 30 years, which include themes such as boosting port connectivity and tackling cyber security threats.

With a specific focus on smart shipping – the automated, partly digitised equipment of today, the remote operation of equipment and the development of autonomous maritime systems, both at sea and onshore – the report argues that for certain technologies in that space, a £560m R&D investment could generate an additional turnover of £1.6bn and 11,500 additional jobs to the companies adopting these tools in the next three decades.

According to the report, sharper focus on smart shipping would generate up to £750m to the UK GDP, with additional impacts introduced by the adoption of technology resulting in a £56m boost to the economy.

Outlining the trends for the sector in a 30-year timeframe, the report listed the technologies that are likely to be delivered in the UK. As well as the economic rationale for the UK government to invest in that field, the report covers the estimated social costs and benefits of tech adoption in shipping and the upsides of early adoption or following smart shipping technologies.

Impactful technologies

The report listed the technologies likely to impact the sector and be incorporated by 2050 by smart ports, autonomous vessels, on-board technologies and professional services technologies. These include robotics, big data analytics, smart ships, autonomous systems and human augmentation, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber and electronic warfare.

According to the research, drivers of smart shipping technology advances in the UK (see key areas of focus below) are improving environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, optimising workflows to increase capacity and efficiency, digitising transaction documentation, and accompanying the effects of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The six smart shipping technologies most likely to be delivered by the UK:

  • Manufacturing and deployment of smaller autonomous vessels;
  • Smart shipping sensor development and sensor integration services;
  • Smart shipping command and control systems and expertise;
  • Smart shipping data and intelligence services;
  • Smart shipping cyber security and risk management; and
  • Training in the adoption and utilisation of smart shipping technologies.

In terms of strategic decisions outlined in the report, fields in which the UK would benefit from a first-mover advantage are training in the adoption and utilisation of smart shipping technologies, as well as smart shipping cyber security and risk management.

The report noted that the most important drivers underpinning the development of smart port technologies in the UK include the digitisation of transaction documentation, and warned that the increase in global trade volumes means analogue systems are unsustainable.

Opportunities for technology advancement mentioned in the report include areas such as smart ports, and systems across areas such as traffic management, automated information, real-time location and automated mooring.

The report points out that autonomous systems in the shipping industry are expected to reduce maritime emissions, reduce risk, enable fuel savings and save costs incurred for shipping operators by about 20%.

Read more about maritime technology

The vision for ship autonomy outlined in the report listed four degrees: in the first stage, ships have automated processes and algorithmic decision support, but onboard crew members are still needed to operate the systems. In the second, ships are controlled remotely, but still with onboard crew members.

Ships are controlled remotely with no seafarers on-board in the third stage of ship autonomy, while ships are fully autonomous in the fourth and final stage of autonomy.

According to the study, trials are progressing well with vessels at stages three and four, but respondents noted that every time a trial of an autonomous vessel is organised, operators must convince the relevant Maritime Authority that the operation will be safe. 

In terms of on-board tech, the report noted that the shipping industry is seemingly reluctant in embracing technology, but the sector still sees technological advancement in various key areas such as AI, smart ship platforms, alternative propulsion and connectivity.

Regarding professional business services, there are opportunities around blockchain for ports and shipping to bring efficiency to document management as well as payment technologies that help sector firms cut out the cost of banks and other intermediaries.

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