At the beginning of the year, industries announce trends in their respective domains. Manufacturers publicise major products that will be available in the market; car-makers showcase new models that will be launched during the year; manufacturers of smart phones and mobile devices provide teasers of new models; and digital developers proclaim cutting edge or futuristic software.
Although not as exciting as the above, the maritime industry predicts its annual shipping and cargo outlook, shipbuilding trends, and port infrastructure developments. However, this is about to change given that the maritime industry is under rapid technological transformation. It is now characterised by increased use of digital systems, smart sensors, networks for data transfer among stakeholders, unmanned and remote controlled systems/devices. These are led by a number of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and deep machine learning. There are at least four digital technologies related to the maritime domain that could make headlines in 2018.
First, digital twinning, which is being referred to as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0 that offers a new way to design and undertake maintenance during the full life cycle of a product. In this process, a physical asset is digitally mapped and continuously monitored using data from sensors fitted in the equipment and seen on the ‘digital twin’ offshore to obtain real-time performance reports. This facilitates analyses and helps predict breakdowns before the equipment fails, and enables remedial measures through replacements and repair, thereby enhancing operational efficiency. For instance, at the global quality assurance company DNV GL, 'digital twins' are connected to control system software on ships and offshore units, and help in monitoring machinery, equipment and systems on these platforms. The company claims that it has successfully "twinned" over 150 vessels and the "technology can easily be adapted to any ship or asset type." According to a study, up to 85 per cent of Internet of things (IoT) platforms will contain some form of digital twinning by 2020.
Second, the exponential growth in usage of cloud computing. The shipping industry, including supply chain managers, were initially hesitant but have slowly started using cloud computing services to securely store data, which allows industry executives to understand and address market and operational risks effectively. For instance, the United Arab Shipping Co. started using a cloud-based fuel management system to meet the fuel needs of its fleet of 70 vessels. This saved the company bunker fuel costs by 3 to 5 per cent by using real-time pricing data, ship location, and other related information.
Similarly, cloud-based management helps in monitoring the progress of a shipbuilding project. The owners can watch over the construction of a ship and exchange "comments and replies" by simply using a single drawing of the ship which could be over gigabytes of data, and cloud computing can handle thousands of such drawings.
At the operational level, cloud computing is being put to use in autonomous ships that use enormous amounts of data from numerous sources including on-board systems such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and radar. For instance, Rolls-Royce is partnering with Google for its Cloud Machine Learning Engine to train Rolls-Royce's AI-based object classification system. This software can detect, identify and track objects that a vessel may run into at sea.
The third technology is the ‘Chatbot’. With rapid advancement in digital technologies it has become easy for companies to interact with customers and shoppers through messaging applications. However, it is now time to say 'goodbye, apps' and instead use ‘hello, bots’, despite the fact that Facebook’s Messenger already has 900 million users and WhatsApp has one billion users.
Chatbot is a conversation tool and is built on “machine learning and evolutionary algorithms" that facilitate interactions with humans. AI whizzes are developing Chatbots that can closely replicate general human conversations. Google is developing a speech synthesis programme that will be able to "generate human-like speech and even its own music compositions." Chatbots work as virtual assistants and are capable of accessing data and answering questions, which can support maritime operations. It is useful to mention that Chatbots can soon become "pervasive in day-to-day company-to-customer and online communications" and explode in popularity.
Fourth, blockchain technology used in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin has found application in the maritime domain. One of the early users of blockchain technology is the marine insurance sector which confronts a number of challenges in terms of transparency of goods being transported, regulatory compliance of the shipment, etc. These affect the business of marine insurers, shipping companies, and law enforcement agencies alike. The latter must verify the legitimacy of the goods being transported, truthfulness of bills of lading, cargo manifests, and port documents. Distributed ledger, the technology behind blockchain, will ensure transparency across an interconnected network of clients, brokers, insurers and other third parties.
Finally, technology has historically been in a state of continuous mutability and some technology trends can be transitory and easily become obsolescent and forgotten. However, the ongoing digital transformation, unlike any other technological revolution, is highly disruptive and is preordained to dominate the maritime industry for many decades into the future.