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It is a commonly held view that the only people who really understand the pace of technological change are the very young. As the 73-year-old Dr Helmut Sohmen—Chairman of BW Group one of the world’s largest ship owners—proved recently, that is not the case. Interviewed on the subject of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ ships Sohmen explained that he wasn’t rushing to order any for the following reason. “Technology is moving so fast, catapulting ahead,” he said, “so that when better times come a few years from now today’s eco-ships might not be as fuel-efficient as we think in three years time. Ships being built today might look a little elderly more quickly.”
Looking at the range of designs around at the moment it’s hard to imagine any of them looking dated. From the Germanischer Lloyd (now DNV GL) future-ship concepts to the retractable sails and gleaming solar panels of the NYK Super Eco Ship the ships of tomorrow are all glossy and space-age, bristling with conspicuous technology. Even more high-tech is the recently unveiled ‘Vindskip’ from Lade AS, a massive hull its most arresting feature, acting as a sail to harness the lifting force of the wind to pull the ship along.
Powering ships by harnessing the power of nature may be a wholesome and compliant strapline, but this tight ‘eco’ focus appears to have stifled the kind of innovation taking place in other industries. The truth is that we are already witnessing the beginning of a new era of technology which is not harnessing nature, but changing the way it traditionally behaves. At a sub-atomic level we are re-writing the established laws of physics, engineering and chemistry with astonishing new materials which hold massive potential.
So Dr Sohmen is right to suspect that, even with all their impeccable green credentials, and promises of 60 or 80% reductions in emissions and fuel savings, these ships are going to look like something out of a 1970’s space adventure serial very soon. Because technology is about to disappear.
“These ships are going to look like something out of a 1970’s space adventure serial very soon. Because technology is about to disappear.”
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale. The nanometer is a unit of measure which is one billionth of a metre and at this level materials begin to behave in unexpected ways and develop curious properties. Astonishing as it may seem scientists have created a man-made motor at this scale which is so small you can fit 6,000 of them on the head of a pin. If you visit the Futurenautics web site you can see a video of the motor in action together with other amazing footage of water bouncing off superhydrophobic material. In shipping there is a tendency to equate technology with engineering, and engineering with scale—the largest ships ever to sail were launched this year—but the really game-changing technology is so small you can’t even see it with the naked eye.
One of the most significant nanotech discoveries so far is the carbon nanotube and materials such as ‘buckypaper’ made out of them. Buckypaper is one tenth the weight and yet potentially 500 times stronger than steel. Its lightness means a vehicle built from it requires less fuel and yet it offers improved structural integrity and even allows wireless data transfer through the composite material. With properties like this airlines are already actively investigating how it can be used for commercial passenger airliners.
Whereas anything the size of an airliner made from buckypaper may be a decade or more away there are other nanotech advances which could be used immediately for a variety of maritime applications. Hydrophobic nanotech coatings can produce dry decks, oilskins which never get wet and boots which repel water. Treated components would never rust and other nanotech coatings would render them permanently lubricated without the need for any oil. A hull coated in such material would sail the oceans perpetually unfouled which alone could offer a 15% improvement in fuel efficiency.
Carbon nanotubes the basis of ‘buckypaper’: 1/10th the weight yet 500 times stronger than steel.
It is difficult to understand why these materials and their potential have yet to gain any traction in the shipping and maritime industry when they offer so much scope. Fuel costs, always in the top 3 concerns of any operator, are directly addressed by the lightness of nanotech materials; are mitigated by the effect of nanotech fuel additives; and may be ameliorated altogether with the development of ultra-long-lasting nanotech batteries.
But significant as it is, nano science and materials are just one component of shipping’s technology-enabled future. With computing power doubling roughly every eighteen months the ability to automate processes is accelerating quickly. The world’s smallest chip measures just 1.9 millimeters by 2 millimeters and is 0.56 of a millimeter thick and it is part of a new generation which will link everything from smart phones to refrigerators to livestock all around the world. The Internet of All Things or Machine-to-machine (M2M) is silently creating an online network of objects using sensors and actuators to monitor themselves, recognise and take action on the data they produce. These low-power chips can be embedded into anything and everything and are driving the advent of what is being described as Manufacturing 3.0 or Industry 4.0. They are also—quite literally—driving.
With driverless cars predicted to be widely available by 2020, most of the technology required to make them a reality is already available in high-specification vehicles. Adaptive cruise control, automatic parking and lane assist are all functions performed by sensors and actuators in conjunction with GPS signals and cameras giving the vehicle highly accurate awareness of its surroundings. In an environment where miles of clear ocean separate them, the same thing could easily be implemented for ships.
What is really significant though, is that these cars aren’t just being told to drive, they are learning to drive. So-called learning algorithms, complex computer programmes which learn from their data have already had a major impact in financial trading and healthcare diagnostics.
Until now accurately diagnosing breast cancer biopsy samples was a task fraught with errors. A learning algorithm which has been fed historic information about samples is now available for physicians to upload their own biopsy slides and get a malignant or benign result. The algorithm is 99% accurate. And with every slide it reads, it gets better. Imagine for a moment the experience of every Master, Navigation Officer and Chief Engineer in your fleet fed into an intelligent computer programme. Then imagine it across every seafarer currently sailing. Then imagine the collective knowledge base in 50 years time. You could not entrust your multi-million dollar vessel and its priceless crew to a safer pair of hands.
Lurking in one of these new future-ship designs is exactly this kind of algorithm. Whilst the big news about the Vindskip is the huge, sail-shaped hull, what hasn’t been so widely reported is the algorithm without which the ship would be un-sailable. In order to operate properly the Vindskip must make a constant series of complex calculations necessary to maintain the optimum course to catch the wind and to balance the power between wind and LNG engines. In short, the Vindskip drives itself. Whether this algorithm is programmed to learn from its experiences we don’t know, but one can’t help wondering where—had the project and the industry not been so myopically focussed on ‘eco’ credentials and sexy design—this little algorithm might have taken them.
The Vindskip from LADE looks sci-fi but the real innovation is the algorithm which allows her to sail herself.
It is only now that shipping is moving into an era where the potential for these algorithms, M2M and the data they feed on can be unlocked. The complexity and expense of deep sea satellite communications and, crucially, lack of bandwidth has acted as a brake on this technology in shipping. But with IP solutions like VSAT and Inmarsat FleetBroadband and the new generation of high throughput satellite networks like Inmarsat GlobalXpress and Intelsat EPIC coming online, the opportunities to exploit this technology are growing.
As Manufacturing 3.0 gears up and Industry 4.0 dawns shipping, sitting at the heart of so many value and logistics chains, is already at a disadvantage. Siegfried Russwurm of the Siemens AG Managing Board describes the new manufacturing as ‘de-central cyber-physical systems interacting with each other and self-organising product installations’. In essence, bits of the product will know where they go and will discuss with each other to decide the best way to build themselves in factories with little human interference. With the shipping industry being described by analysts as operating ‘in the stone age’, it is not just the materials and the operation of ships themselves which are important, but how ship operators use them to add value in this new environment.
For ship designers, ship yards and maritime suppliers this new world requires careful planning. 3D printing will change the way ships and machinery are manufactured and the standardisation required to make M2M work properly will mean a fundamental change in the creation and vesting of IPR and a subsequent change in the way businesses operate and monetise their products. For more in-depth analysis of these coming challenges read our ‘Business e-volution’ section.
Shipping needs to begin thinking outside the box, but it could start with the box itself. Containers made from buckypaper—one tenth the weight and 500 times stronger than steel without the need for corrugated panels—would instantly increase the capacity of every ship sailing, reduce the weight of that ship and could integrate tracking capability into their very fabric.
Scale that up to the ship itself, lighter, stronger with wireless transfer built in and no need for miles of cabling, its HTS satellite connection via flat panel antennae flush with the ship, benefitting from a nanotech coating which keeps it, and the hull, pristinely clean. Systems in the hull and under the alleyways will capture the kinetic energy produced by the wave action against the ship and the footfall of the crew and turn it into electricity. The ship and all its components will generate terabytes of data on its operation and condition which it will stream into the corporate network where Shipisticians will mine and interrogate that data for insight and advantage.
Like the driverless cars the ship will constantly sense its environment, sending and receiving data on its own status, GPS signals, and weather data and sharing it with other ships when planning routes. Forms and administrative information will be exchanged seamlessly with Ports and customs without the intervention of crew who will interact with the ship’s systems via wearable tech which will keep them safe, offer a high level of security and monitor both the quality of their work and their health (see The Cyborg Crew for more.)
The most astonishing thing about that vision is that, with very few exceptions, the technology to do all of it already exists. In the months and years to come we’ll identify and analyse how and where it’s already being used both outside and inside maritime, and how that knowledge and experience can help shipping to leapfrog into the future.
The truth is that the ‘Sentient Ship’ could almost be shipping’s present, but in order for it to even make it into shipping’s future the industry needs a major shift in emphasis. Technology and innovation cannot be the exclusive preserve of the eco and green agenda any longer or it will be to the ultimate detriment of the industry as a whole. Technology and innovation will lead to safer, cheaper, more competitive, more lucrative and, yes, cleaner, shipping. So it’s time for our ‘stone age’ industry to stop talking about eco ships and start talking about smart ships. And, more urgently, to build some.
Dr Sohmen is right in more ways than one. It isn’t just the latest ships which are going to look elderly very soon, it is the entire shipping industry. But waiting on the sidelines to see what happens isn’t an option unless—like the technology—you’re prepared to become invisible.