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Government should invest in maritime tech, say MPs
Report from the Transport Committee calls for investment in technology for the maritime sector, and wants the government to make it easier to scale-up innovation
The government must invest in technology to achieve its vision of making the UK’s maritime sector more competitive and reach its target of zero-emission shipping, according to MPs on the Transport Committee.
The committee has published a report on the government’s Maritime 2050 strategy, launched in 2019, calling for Whitehall to give the sector the support it needs to achieve the its goals.
The strategy has a focus on innovation and ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of new technological developments. While it’s been welcomed by the maritime industry, there have been concerns around the number of recommendations in it.
There are 184 recommendations in total, and the committee has heard evidence of worry that the “large number of recommendations indicates the strategy lacks clear priorities and focus”.
“To avoid confusion for the sector, the government needs to more clearly distinguish between which Maritime 2050 recommendations are specific actions and which are aspirations,” the report said.
One of the recommendations is to create a maritime innovation hub which will bring together expertise and support technology development. In June 2019, the Port of Tyne launched the 2050 Innovation Hub, with the aim to use its creation to continue developing this as a regional cluster model. The committee’s report said it welcomed the hub as a way to break down barriers to collaboration.
However, it added that there are also challenges with the “scaling-up gap” where innovations are developed “with the help of research and development or seed funding, but making the leap to widespread use and commercialisation of those innovations is much more difficult”.
One of the issues facing technological development in the sector is that there is a “drop off between demonstration of technology and scaling up, as funding is generally only available for the research and innovation phases”, the report said.
“This will be even more problematic for future carbon-neutral technologies as they will be more expensive than competing carbon technologies.”
The committee calls on the Department of Transport (DfT) to work with the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) “to develop business skills support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the maritime sector”.
In 2018, the Government Office for Science identified that smart shipping is “likely to be the single most important marine technological development”, and in 2021, government research showed that a 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.
The Transport Committee’s report said that smart shipping, such as largely automated operation of inland or seagoing ships through on-board technologies and new port design, would “allow a vessel to sail more efficiently, thereby reducing transportation costs and boosting competitiveness in relation to rail and road for inland waterways”.
Read more about the maritime industry and technology:
- Government report outlines opportunities and recommendations for the industry in areas such as autonomous systems and artificial intelligence.
- UK telco teams with leading North East of England port to develop services based on private 5G network to power applications including robotics and autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and internet of things.
- BT and ABP deploy intelligent asset platform across East Anglian maritime commercial hub to help its voyage towards smart port status.
However, the report points out that new technology requires new regulation, and cited Maritime UK’s Programme for government, published in October 2022, which said the government “must not be afraid to engage in extensive regulatory reform to ensure the regulatory framework keeps up with the current pace of technological development across the economy”.
“Regulation has been referred to as the last hurdle for innovation, with people not wanting to risk not being able to get regulatory approval,” the report said.
It added that the Maritime Future Technologies Team (MFT), established by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) in November 2020, aims to assist in understanding the new technologies available and help facilitate the conversation for regulatory change.
However, in evidence from Marine Zero, the committee heard that as the workload for MFT has increased, “their ability to support organisations has correspondingly decreased”.
“This will deter investors and first movers from engaging in the UK market as it is now seen as high-risk, with the MCA being seen as a blocker and not an enabler,” the report said.
Change of plan
Originally, there were plans to bring forward a comprehensive transport bill, which would include legislative reforms on autonomous vessels. However, this is no longer the plan. Despite this, the government told the committee it did not believe regulation was lagging behind innovation.
“There is a fine balance that needs to be struck when it comes to regulating for smart shipping and autonomous vessels,” the report said. “It is important that innovation is able to flourish while ensuring safety standards are maintained and that there is a measure of certainty to guide investment.
“There is a major commercial opportunity for UK innovators, who have been at the forefront of developing marine and maritime autonomy to date. This momentum must not be lost.”
The government also has a goal of achieving net-zero emissions in the shipping industry. However, the report said there is an urgent need to scale up and commercialise current technologies that may assist in reaching net-zero more quickly, which the committee believes “is an oversight in current funding streams”.