Ships without captains
These days, automatisation and digitalisation are two of the most intensely-discussed subjects in the industry – and beyond its confines too. These involve the entire supply chain, including ports (see also pages 12 and 14) and the maritime routes they serve.
It was not all that long ago that nigh-on every person working in the maritime shipping industry would probably have claimed, with full conviction, that a freighter without a captain or crew on board would only – if ever at all – become a reality in the very distant future. Though technically the deployment of such vessels may be possible, the argument went, and the move might make transport solutions safer as well as more efficient, there was not really any need for the advance. Attitudes are now changing.
The Rolls-Royce corporation has become one of the first to announce plans to develop a fleet of freighters that can sail without a crew. The project, conducted in collaboration with the Finnish research centre VTT, is due to bear fruit by 2020. Success could cut transport costs by up to 20%. Another benefit could be a drastic reduction in pirate attacks, as raiders could not demand high ransoms without people in their captivity. As there are no rules yet for shipping operations with autonomous vessels, Rolls-Royce is planning to cooperate with North European governments, such as Norway’s. The vessels will be tested in their waters until such a time as there are generally applicable laws and regulations.
The speed with which visions can sometimes become reality was illustrated by a conference staged recently by the German engineers’ association VDI in Rotterdam, Europe’s largest bulk cargo port, where fully-automated terminals already operate. The event offered a detailed overview of developments in the automation and digitisation of harbour and industrial cranes. The experts believe that developments will generate higher productivity rates and increase safety. These points would appear to be largely accepted by the industry at large, as is reflected by the speed with which many ports and terminals worldwide are automating and digitalising their handling processes (see also pages 12 and 14).
Data management and containers
Shipowners are also swimming with the digitalisation tide. The Danish shipping company Maersk Line recently uploaded the technical details of its entire container fleet to the not-for-profit organisation BoxTech, a database provided by the Bureau International des Containers et du Transport Intermodal (BIC). Thus BoxTech now holds details of more than 7.5 million shipping containers in its database, or approximately 30% of the global container fleet.
BoxTech’s technical characteristics database was launched in 2016, to help shippers, forwarders, terminal operators as well as other entities to digitalise more of their operations. The parties aim to further intensify the exchange of information between the individual links in the supply chain.