Innovations are bringing change to ocean shipping

Yara Birkeland's ship produces no emissions and operates autonomously.

Yara Birkeland's ship produces no emissions and operates autonomously.

Digitalization is changing shipping dynamics, while renewable technologies are re-inventing the energy mix

Remember when you had to wait to flag down a taxi? Now we order a taxi via an app and it arrives at your door within minutes. Remember when you had to shop around for the cheapest product? Now the whole market can be compared at the click of a button.

Shipping innovation has been left fairly stagnant while all around us we see the profound impact of technological advancements. We continue to see human labor manually off-load mixed products of shipping containers, and then manually refill them for the next trip.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade travels by ship, the same as it was many centuries ago. But, unlike many centuries ago, the demand for freight shipping has seen exponential rises. The requirements for the industry are growing and technological innovations will provide efficiency gains in current business models.

There is a surge in tech start-ups seeking to modernize and pave the way for a new reality in global shipping.

Traditional charting procedures can consume a large amount of time and effort, trying to match vessel owners with your business needs. OpenSea seeks to solve this issue and bring freight shipping into the 21st century. It offers vessel owners a marketplace to match with suitable candidates, and with that offers customers an open market offering the best rates to suit your needs. Other similar market entrants include Kontainers, that again connects business and cargo ships with instant booking facilities.

Blockfreight uses blockchain technology to allow stakeholders to have access to an advanced automated global ledger with digital security, authentication, and chain of custody data associated with every freight container. It has the potential to reduce the inefficiencies associated with freight transactions, furthermore, claiming it unlocks the opportunity for new and innovative applications serving the needs of the global supply chain.

Tech start-ups are dramatically changing the landscape of how the industry operates all the way down the supply chain, using automated technology to make substantial efficiency savings with the potential to reduce costs and provide a solution for the continuous demand for shipping products.

Another concern for policy makers and environmentalists is the carbon footprint left from shipping vessels.

Electric and autonomous vehicles create an opportunity to reduce fossil fuel energy demand through  opportunities in ridesharing and pooling. However, reducing the energy demand for freight transportation is perhaps more complex. The digital innovation of shopping online shifted the energy demand from personal vehicles to freight delivery vehicles. Innovations must come from efficiency gains and fuel technologies.

According to EIA, the world freight sector energy consumption is set to increase by a third by 2040, while shipping accounts for 12% of overall freight consumption, it is set to double by 2040.

This would result in more freight forwarders on our seas, and therefore perhaps more impetus on creating efficiencies. Shipping out of all the freight options is already the most efficient per mile traveled and has seen a 59.5% increase in efficiencies from the 1980s to date, but improvements don’t stop there.

“If ships were to move to cleaner diesel fuels, that would be a big reduction in emissions,” said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the METRANS Transportation Center at the University of Southern California. The major shipping players are looking into new marine fuels and other sustainability measures.

Moving one step ahead, do renewables have the power to serve the shipping industry? Whether it is possible or not, significant investment is being made to make this a reality.

YARA Birkeland plans to launch the world’s first all-electric cargo ship by 2018, with the vessel being fully autonomous by 2020. The electrically powered vessel ship has only a capacity of 150 containers - which is a small ship by today’s standards - but according to the Wall Street Journal, because of the reduced cost of fuel and redundancy of staff requirements will save up to 90% in operating costs per year.

Eco Marine Power is developing an Integrated Wind and Solar Power System for Sustainable Shipping. The Aquarius MRE consists of rigid sails, solar panels, and energy storage capabilities, and with the ability to install on existing ship fleets will enable ships to tap into wind and solar power to help fuel the vessel.

A zero emissions ship powered by renewables is most certainly in the pipeline, YARA Birkeland could serve as a litmus test for the viability of renewables and whether the discussion of mass adoption is indeed a possibility.

Manual processors which are extremely time-consuming such as finding a container are becoming digitalized and automation is enhancing the on- and off-loading process. Renewable technologies are making sustainable shipping a reality. Technology driven innovations have been stagnant for over a century in the shipping industry, however, the outlook over the next century is much more promising.