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New UK maritime initiative fails the technology acid test

The UK Government has launched its new Maritime 2050 Navigating the Future initiative with a fanfare, but little substance. Credit: Port of Rotterdam Authority

Britain’s Department for Transport today launched a bid to become what it calls “a pre-eminent global test bed of emerging technology,” announcing investment in a technology hub and in the training of mariners.

The launch of Maritime 2050 Navigating the Future took place at the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation in London. The Maritime 2050 strategy sets out the country’s ambitions to “remain a world-leader in the maritime industry for the next 30 years.”

However, the initial view of the strategy was that it was too little too late, with no specific funding attributed to the policy and claims that were centred around Britain’s former glories as a maritime nation.

Neither the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, or Nusrat Ghani, the Minister for Maritime Affairs, were available for comment, but a spokesman at the Department for Transport told FreightWaves that no extra money was available to support the policy. He said, “All current work is funded from existing budgets. The route maps will identify any new work and if they demand funding, approvals for this [it] (sic) will be sought through the usual channels.”

Furthermore, it was difficult to marry the government’s view that the new strategy will “set the UK as a pre-eminent global test bed of emerging technology, enabling the country to capitalise on the economic potential of maritime innovations,” with the reality that many countries are already significantly further along this path than Britain.

In the field of digitalisation and smart or autonomous shipping the strategy paper says, “The UK will be a vibrant hub of research and development.”

Asked why the UK has been slow to establish a testing area for autonomous vessels, the Department for Transport spokesman said, “It hasn’t. The UK is one of the first to look at legislation to set up a framework for the safe testing of autonomous vessels and we will continue to enhance this through Maritime 2050 and the technology route maps published today. This will set the country ahead of others when companies are looking for areas to develop emerging technologies.”

With Scandinavian countries already operating autonomous testing areas, the development of an autonomous container vessel (Norway’s Yara Birkeland) and the launch of autonomous ferry by Rolls-Royce Marine in early December, it is difficult to see how the government can substantiate the claim that it will lead the way in this important technological field.

The claim from the Department for Transport that, “We’re not lagging behind. We have companies, such as Artemis Technologies, which are years ahead of the competition and making great strides in this sphere,” shows that the government is clutching at straws.

Government makes many claims about Britain being a world leader and that “Maritime 2050 is built on seven high-level themes – the UK’s competitive advantage, environment, infrastructure, people, security, technology and trade.”

However, when asked by FreightWaves about what effect the sale of Rolls-Royce Marine, a leader in maritime automation, to the Norwegian company Kongsberg has had on its strategy, it was difficult not to feel that the ministry is in denial.

The Department for Transport claimed, “this is a long-term strategy which will help the UK continue to be a world leader in maritime for the next 30 years and beyond.”

Another element of the policy is to establish a port as an “innovation hub.” It is unclear exactly what this will be, but the hub will be set up by 2030, 11 years in the future.

The Department for Transport said, “We need to go through a competitive bidding process, which will look at which technologies will be trialled and developed. The ambition is to set up a hub by 2030. This time out to 2030 will not be lost – we will continue to support the existing maritime technology expertise around ports where we already see excellent commercial outcomes from industry and ports working together.”

Maersk, the leading Danish ship and terminal operator, believes that maritime technological developments must move far more quickly. Soren Toft, Maersk’s COO said, ““The next five to 10 years are going to be crucial. We will invest significant resources for innovation and fleet technology.”

It seems that the urgency at Maersk and the reality of the developments in other parts of the world have passed the British Government by. Perhaps it has been too focused on Brexit to apply itself fully to the challenges of the maritime sector.

Transport Secretary Grayling said in a statement, “This strategy is a clear message to the world – we will continue to be a leading maritime nation for the next 30 years and beyond.

“We will be at the forefront of emerging technology and seafarer training and will capitalise on selling this expertise to companies across the world.”

But at first glance this policy appears to be a set of ambitions and high-minded values without any substantial backing from Government.