Every day seems to bring news of new technologies that aim to revolutionize transportation, including many that will directly impact logistics. Most of these eye-catching “sexy” developments involve ground transportation with crossover consumer and crossover uses: think automated cars and trucks. But what about ocean freight, and more specifically the ships that carry trillions worth of cargo every year?
As we’ve written frequently, a supply chain is only as good as its weakest link. And the ocean link in the chain is directly dependent on the ships themselves -- their speed, their sophistication, and their integration with other technologies. Where is the innovation that will ensure that ocean-freight technology keeps pace with its land-based cousins?
The good news is that there are plenty of technological innovations underway. They may not grab headlines the way robot cars do, but they’re arguably just as important. Here are some highlights of what’s here now, what’s coming in the near future, and some (very) wild stabs at what the distant future might hold.
Here in 2018
Lots of the innovations currently being tested and deployed have to do with the standardization and exchange of information. Last week, we wrote about an epic partnership between Maersk and IBM that aims to provide a comprehensive exchange of shipping information built upon the blockchain. Maersk has also launched reefer (perishables) containers with advanced cell and satellite tracking for use by about 1,000 cargo owners and shippers. Its capabilities include real-time, off-site monitoring of reefer containers, their location, mode of transport, and temperature deviations.
Software developer Navis reported more adoption of their N4 and XVELA operating platforms, which allow ships and ports to exchange crucial info in a shared cloud app. And GE Transportation recently launched a cloud-based portal for the Port of Los Angeles to provide better visibility into data, allowing optimization of resources and assets. These developments are all either already available, in pilot mode, or in rapid development for deployment in 2018.
Last year, the YARA Birkeland generated a lot of buzz for promising to be the first fully-autonomous cargo ship, using a combination of radar, sensors, cameras, and GPS. If all goes according to plan, its maiden fully-autonomous voyage will be in 2020. We wrote about it here (and wondered if the motivation for the initiative was more about the broad benefits of autonomous shipping -- or, most cynically, about reducing the need for expensive human labor).
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce has taken a leadership role in developing open-ocean autonomous shipping, a much more complex challenge. Aiming to have a fully-autonomous ship within 15-20 years, they recently opened a research station in Finland solely dedicated to this purpose.
Much of the “near future” technology will also focus on reducing the environmental impact of shipping. Ocean freight shipping is one of the biggest contributors to pollution, with the Guardian noting it will account for about 17% of global emissions by 2050. To pre-empt heavy regulation, aggressive initiatives are underway to decrease ocean shipping’s effect on the environment. But the International Maritime Organization has already imposed a decrease in fuel sulphur levels, effective 2020.
Tech may be the best solution to the pollution problem. The YARA Birkeland, for example, promises zero-emission sailing, onloading, and offloading. Sails (such as EnergySail from Eco Marine Power) are being developed that would allow freighters to use solar and/or wind power to mitigate the dependency on fossil fuels. And nanocoating is now being used to reduce biofouling -- a phenomenon in which barnacles and other sea matter cling to the hull of a ship, increasing drag and weight, exacerbating emissions and fuel consumption.
Okay, so looking out a few years, we’ve already got environmentally friendly automated ships powered by sensors, and robots coming in and out of ports powered by the perfect flow of data.
What’s next? Will there be a niche for transporting cargo via suborbital rockets? Or will cargo “travel” through the ether via transmission of 3D-printing blueprints? When you’re talking about the infinite future, anything’s possible. But for the foreseeable future, the Earth’s oceans are still an indispensible logistics pathway. And there’s still plenty of tech “headspace” to innovate and make use of it to its full potential.
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