Changing tides: 4 trends that will reshape the maritime sector

The global maritime industry is no stranger to the ebbs and flows of a cyclical market. Yet the myriad developments in recent years have only reinforced one thing – that change is going to be bigger, faster, and it is here to stay. Trends that preceded 2020 have accelerated, particularly in the areas of digitalisation and decarbonisation. The sector is undergoing significant change even as it continues to power the world through disruptions, reinforcing its vital role in the global trade system. From autonomous ships to alternative fuels, here are four trends that could reshape the maritime landscape.

1. A bigger digital push

While the maritime sector has long embraced technology and big data to carry out operations like advanced inspection systems and forecast equipment failures, the pandemic has hastened this shift. Singapore is one country that is taking big steps in this direction. In February, the government passed a new bill to allow for electronic bills of lading, cutting down the time and money required to process what would typically be a huge amount of paperwork. Currently, physical cross-border trade documents are used, which can run up to hundreds of pages for a single transaction.

The move comes as part of the Republic’s wider effort to build up its digital trade as it prepares for a different future – one increasingly governed by technology. The number of maritime tech start-ups, for instance, is expected to more than triple from 30 to 100 by 2025, revealed Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Chee Hong Tat in Parliament. Other tools like predictive analytics are also raising the operational efficiency of ports by preventing congestion and helping ships plot routes around low-pressure zones to save fuel.

The digitalPORT@SGTM streamlines vessel, immigration and port health clearances across multiple agencies. Developed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), it streamlines vessel, immigration and port health clearances across multiple agencies into a single application by consolidating 16 separate forms. Shipmasters and ship agents can now submit, track and receive approval for arriving and departing ships through the portal – a move that allows the industry to save up to 100,000 man-hours per year.

Singapore has also simplified the ship docking process by issuing e-certificates directly to Singapore-registered ships. It is one of the first in Asia to issue e-certs, slashing red tape and enabling time and cost savings.

2. Fuelling change

In the high seas, going green is in.

As a signatory of the 2018 Paris Agreement, the International Maritime Organization has taken significant strides in devising solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has driven fuel technology development and the introduction of low-carbon fuels.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a leading alternative fuel option, with LNG-fuelled vessels now accounting for approximately 13 per cent of the newbuild order book. Estimates for 2021 and beyond show continued growth.

Regarded as the cleanest fossil fuel, LNG releases significantly less carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide. It also evaporates rapidly when exposed to the air, leaving no residue on water or soil.

Another fuel that has garnered much attention over the years is green ammonia – the only fuel that does not contain carbon and is readily available in large volumes.

Next up is green hydrogen, which is produced by using electricity to split the hydrogen molecules from oxygen molecules in water. Abundant, cheap and clean-burning, the zero-emissions fuel is forecast to meet 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s energy needs that will not be fulfilled easily by battery, wind or solar power.

3. Robots ahoy

Unmanned ships that have captured the imagination of the maritime industry are getting closer to reality.

Sensor technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced data analytics are enabling autonomous vessels to conduct equipment status monitoring, ship manoeuvring, engine control and cargo management, among other functions.

In 2019, Japan’s NYK Group completed the trial of the world’s first autonomous ship, a 70,826-tonne pure car truck carriers Iris Leader, in a voyage spanning from China to Japan. In Norway, chemical company Yara International is into the final leg of preparations as it prepares to launch an autonomous and emission-free vessel as part of its fleet.

Besides making the maritime industry more competitive, this will also improve the safety and efficiency of maritime transportation and boost the appeal of seafaring as a profession.

Later this year, the maritime world will witness the first Atlantic crossing of an unmanned vessel in the form of the Mayflower autonomous ship. Using artificial intelligence, cloud and edge computing and remote monitoring technology, it will attempt a transatlantic voyage from Plymouth in the United Kingdom to Plymouth in the US.

4. Smart ports and ships that “talk”

As the next big thing in mobile and wireless technology, 5G is set to revolutionise maritime communication. Innovations include using smart drones for real-time monitoring, ship-shore communication for vessel traffic management and just-in-time operations.

In fact, MPA has already incorporated 5G trials in preparation for the shift. These include search and rescue operations using IoT sensors for real-time communications and the accurate positioning and remote handling of vehicles using low-latency, high-resolution video for live control.

Another key development is the partnership between the Infocomm Media Development Authority, M1, MPA and Airbus to conduct coastal 5G standalone network trials at the Singapore Maritime Drone Estate.

This will help Singapore build an open and inclusive 5G innovative ecosystem around the use cases of port operations, as well as boost incident management and response.

Published 18 March 2021

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