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Britain’s Maritime 2050 offers smart technology in a not so smart policy

Britain’s Transport Minisster says that the maritime industry needs to get its skates on if it’s to catch the market leaders in smart ships. Credit: Shutterstock.

British Transport Minister Chris Grayling says he hopes the United Kingdom will be a leading country in smart technology by 2050 as a result of the British Government’s Maritime 2050 initiative.

The joint policy document Maritime 2050, a partnership between the British Government and the maritime industry, was launched late last month at the offices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Maritime 2050 sets out the position of the Government and industry and the direction that it plans to take from now to the target year that IMO set for reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent.

In an exclusive interview with FreightWaves, at the UK Chamber of Shipping’s annual dinner,  Grayling explained that Maritime 2050, “suggests the things we need to do, it’s about the right testing regimes, it’s about encouragement from Government providing the correct incentives or just creating the right regulatory structures.”

Maritime 2050 is a long document, at 338 pages, but appears short on detail. Grayling too, glossed over the fact that there was no Government money supporting the aims of the policy, saying, “With all these things, the money in the end comes from the people that are investing in the technology.”

Grayling believes that it is the job of governments to create the conditions for investors to invest in new technology. But the British initiative has followed countries such as Japan and Denmark that also saw the advantages of a partnership between government, industry and academia far earlier, perhaps as long as eight years ago.

Both of those initiatives included substantial funds from government and industry. In Japan’s case the investment from the partnership was $75 million over a period of around three years for research and development. In Denmark the figure was much lower, around $3 million, but again money was made available through government funding initiatives.

Maritime 2050 promises to provide £1 million ($1.3 million) for the development of an innovation lab that will deliver on the five priorities identified in the document – vision, technology, infrastructure, skills and regulation.

The policy document is, however, vague on specifics. It says Britain will take a leadership role in developing autonomous vessels, but there is no pathway to achieve that goal. According to Maritime 2050, Britain will deliver the proof of concept on three flagship projects within the next five years, while the medium-term goals are to develop regulations governing autonomous ships, both nationally and internationally.

Meanwhile, other nations such as Norway will see an autonomous vessel operating in its waters by 2020. It will develop local regulations based on the experience of operating a ship commercially in its own waters. Finland has already trialled an autonomous ferry, while the one British company that has led the way in autonomous technology, Rolls-Royce Marine, was sold to the Norwegian maritime technology company Kongsberg last year.

Faced with the reality of the super-fast developments that are happening around the globe, it is difficult to take the policy document’s assertions, that the UK is a “thought leader” in the maritime space, seriously.

When asked about his policy, Grayling said, “My view is that when it comes to testing autonomous technology, it’s as much about what we allow to happen as what we don’t, so what we’ve got to do now is to create the most innovative testing environment in the world, so that this is a place that those working with the technology want to come to.”

His view that it is not always an advantage to be an early adopter of technology would hold more water, if there appeared to be a concrete plan. But the Minister’s optimism in the ability of British industry to regain the initiative in some of the technological developments appears to be based on nothing but a long wish list.

Grayling told FreightWaves that sometimes it is better to be in the second wave of development, but that “we’d better get our skates on.” He continued, “My message to the industry is come to us and say this is what we want to do, and we’ll make sure we can allow them to do it.”

Both Japan and Denmark embraced initiatives that sought to develop innovative technologies, such as low friction coatings, environmentally friendly vessel designs and autonomous systems. There was a focus on specific products with a view that these products would be marketable at the end of the development.

There is no indication that Britain will achieve the same success through Maritime 2050 that these other two maritime stalwarts have achieved through their own government/industry partnerships.

Asked where he would like Britain to be in 2050, Grayling said he would like the country to be a “strong maritime nation, ahead of the game in terms of environmental technology, and a country outside the EU, that is keen to take part in the maritime industry, with the most friendly regulatory regime, within reason, for the maritime industry.”

If Chris Grayling really has got his skates on, someone had better tell him he is on thin ice.