Expert Risk Articles

How big data will transform shipping

A world where ships can “talk”. It may sound like a tagline for a science fiction movie but it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds – such ships could be coming to a sea near you within 10 years. However, this timeline is dependent on whether the industry can find a way to process the mass of data accompanying their arrival.


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Imagine a world where the inanimate objects of the shipping industry could talk. What would today’s ships tell us about the stress overweight containers place on
their hulls? How would they describe the strain they are put under by certain weather conditions? And how would they express the real impact of slow steaming on their superstructure? It sounds the stuff of science fiction, but “talking” ships could be just a few years away.

These “smart ships” of the not-so-distant future will be able to “talk” through the use of nanotechnology in paints, coatings and materials, while ultra-sensitive
monitoring through the use of acoustic fibers will allow the detection of minute changes in vibrations.

In this brave, new maritime world voyage data and data from ship structures, components and machinery will be collated and used to enhance performance,
productivity and, crucially, safety. There will also be commercial benefits – key if the innovation is to stick – where, for example, instead of avoiding bad weather,
ship operators can optimize routes that are tailored to the capability of the ship.

      "Smart ships will use voyage data and data from ship
      structures, components and machinery to enhance

This will then lead to a natural move away from fixed maintenance intervals, towards tailored predictive maintenance, which will reduce operator risk and provide improved cost efficiency. Analytics will also support maintenance planning and optimization, as well as operational planning and deployment. Generally, ships today factor in maintenance at a time that is convenient to the commercial plan, but in the future routes might be adapted dynamically to fit with the operational and mechanical plan.

The impact of big data

Jarek Klimczak, Master Mariner and Senior Marine Risk Consultant, AGCS, explains that some early adopters are already on board with the benefits of hull monitoring. “I used to sail on a vessel which had acceleration gauges. These monitored acceleration and measured how the hull behaved under certain conditions. This system allowed constant monitoring of the vessel and made a prognosis based on the weather forecast, parameters of the vessel and the readings.” But super smart ships throw up a fundamental problem: what to do with the large amount of data they will inevitably generate. Ultimately, it will be the success or otherwise of handling this industry-specific big data that will dictate the level of ship efficiency gains.


Advances in ship construction will transform the maritime industry in future, resulting in innovations such as data-centric engineering and even unmanned ships. Photo: Rolls Royce plc Ship Intelligence; Flickr.

Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant, Allianz Risk Consulting, AGCS, believes that looking at ships at this organic level needs careful thought. “You can get so much data at this nano-level – how do you adequately collate, read and analyze it?” Once these questions have been
answered, you can do big things with this big data. Feedback over the life of the vessel on what it is actually doing, rather than relying on theory, is a solution to
understanding what has happened with marine losses, says Kinsey. “When you can get actual reports on what the vessel was encountering that will revolutionize construction. It’s fascinating and it’s not going to go away,” he says.

The rise of data-centric engineering

In fact, future ship intelligence goes beyond nanotech and ultra-monitoring. Rolls-Royce believes that within 10 years, ships’ bridges will be solely focused on
processing high level data analysis to operate on-board systems to manage propulsion and navigation.

Its Future Operator Experience Concept or ‘oX’, developed with Finland’s VTT
Technical Research Centre, sees a future with smart crew workstations, which
automatically recognize individuals when they walk into the bridge, and adjust to
their own preferences. The windows of the oX bridge will be augmented reality
displays of the vessel’s surroundings, including visualizations of potential
hazards that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye.

Rolls-Royce President, Marine, Mikael Makinen describes this as a “truly exciting period in the history of shipping”. He says: “Technology, and in particular, the smart use of big data is going to drive the next generation of ships. Over the next 10 to 20 years we believe ship intelligence is going to be the driving force that will determine the future of our industry, the type of ships at sea, and the competence levels required from tomorrow’s seafarers.”

Classification societies have already started to review their services in light of the arrival of what they describe as “data-centric engineering”. Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the UK charity dedicated to research and education in science and engineering, published its Foresight Review of Big Data in December, explaining that data-centric engineering places a value on data as an asset in itself, and puts
data considerations at the core of engineering design. This, it believes, will improve “performance, safety, reliability and efficiency of assets, infrastructures and complex machines”.

      “Ship intelligence is going to be the driving force that will
      determine the future of the industry, the type of ships at
      sea, and the competence levels required from tomorrow’s

Changing role of classification societies

Dr Sven Gerhard, Global Product Leader Hull & Marine Liabilities, AGCS, agrees that classification societies have certainly discovered the value of big data, “but they do not yet know how they are going to use it. They know they have to develop new services and new products. We will see changes with classification societies in the services they offer and the way in which they undertake their regular surveys, based on the additional data that will be available to them.”

Lloyd’s Register (LR) chief executive Richard Sadler is a strong advocate of a maritime world where data from ship structures, components and machinery is
centrally collected and used to enhance maintenance programs.

“My vision for this is that all the design data collected by major shipbuilders around the world from these technologies would be held in a control center that could be run by them, or perhaps even by LR. Instead of using prescriptive regulation for maintenance on a time-based system, we would use this data to run the machinery until it shows signs of requiring maintenance.”

But this evolution comes at a price, and a hefty one at that, if you start down the road of a centralized control center to process big data, as Sadler envisions.

“For the shipping industry cost might be a big barrier especially with the present condition of the market,” agrees Klimczak, while Gerhard believes it is a question of cost efficiency and what companies actually want to achieve with their big data.

And even if the money can be found, the change in mind-set needed to drive smart ship development still needs to be overcome. The future value of big data can only be realized through organizational and cultural change in combination with the acceptance of appropriate analytical tools, skills and practices.

Those in the shipping industry entrenched in a certain way of working may find it difficult to adjust to a new model with different partnerships and different
skills. This technical revolution will certainly lead to a fundamental change in the services provided by those at the sharp end of the industry, namely ship builders
and classification societies. But ultimately there will be few shipping sectors that will not be directly challenged by the advent of smart ships and datacentric

MOL Comfort casualty causes concerns


The investigation into the loss of MOL Comfort blamed “uncertainty factors”. Photo:

With the review into the sudden sinking of the 2008-built 8,110 teu MOL Comfort in 2013 now complete, the industry is only fractionally closer to determining a definitive cause for the casualty. The investigation by the ship’s classification society Class NK into the loss blamed “uncertainty factors” for the structural failure and could not definitively answer if design and construction or operational flaws had led to the disaster.

The ship broke into two approximately 200 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen in June 2013. There were 11 sister ships of similar design which were all inspected for structural weaknesses shortly after the MOL Comfort incident and nothing of concern was found.

Despite the lack of clear cause, the International Association of Classification Societies has responded to the casualty, introducing new container ship construction requirements for its members. The two new unified requirements (URs) for container ships are URS11A, which is a longitudinal strength standard for container ships, and URS34, dealing with functional requirements and load cases for direct analysis of container ships. Both are scheduled to be delivered in 2015 and are minimum technical requirements (read here).

Find the Safety and Shipping Review 2015 and more studies, as well as expert articles on our Insights section.