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Understanding Tomorrow’s Shipping Technology


Tomorrow’s shipping technology is nearly here already. Science fiction has become science fact faster than we perhaps thought possible. What does that mean for ships?


There is currently much discussion about future technology in shipping. From autonomous ships, to robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). Experts are keen to explore the potential and human impact of new equipment, new means of generating power, and new ways of operating.

There is much fear and disquiet in the maritime industry about disruptive technology, and the ways in which traditional shipping companies are seen as dead men walking. In the face of upstarts and start-ups, what can shipping do to stem the tide threats wrought by change or take advantage of potential opportunities?

Thankfully, as ever, someone has worked on providing an answer to exactly those key questions. Together, Lloyd’s Register (LR), QinetiQ and the University of Southampton, have developed the “Global Marine Technology Trends 2030” (GMTT 2030) report to ask, “what’s next?” in the maritime industry.

The report was produced to shine a light on the transformative aspect of 18 technologies on ship design, naval power and the use of ocean space by 2030. There are two key areas which are deemed to be of most importance, those that will transform ship design and building, and those that will impact safety, commercial and operational performance. So, what is coming next?


The starting point to the debate is the sense that change is not just coming, it is coming quickly. There is no holding it back, all shipping companies can do is think ahead and be ready to make tough decisions, and make them fast.

So, what are the technologies that will be making themselves felt, and what has already arrived since LR and the gang sat down to brainstorm and look into their collective crystal ball? What are the more exciting suggestions?

Advanced materials: Ships are made of metal, that is an almost universal maritime truth, but what if there were other options? Changing the materials currently used forms a big part of the report. While metals will remain the dominant force for ship structures, microscale or Nano-scale manipulation will come into play.

Changing the chemical compositions of ship materials, or putting Nano particles into them could have all kinds of benefits. From stronger welds to resistance to rust or marine growth – there is even talk of self-repairing materials.

Robotics: The desire to reduce human interaction seems to be a key goal of the future. So, the use of robots is a mainstay of any move from science fiction to science, indeed shipping fact. The LR report predicts that by 2030 there will be learning robots; capable of handling an asset; and mini-robots, potentially used for inspections in harsh environments. GMTT 2030 states that robotic technologies will “integrate assets with other emerging technologies” such as big data and the Internet of Things, and will reduce human interaction with dangerous processes.

Sensors: The ability to operate vessels either remotely, or to have them sailing autonomously comes down to the capability of the sensors and wireless monitoring. A new generation of sensor technologies will collect data autonomously and then relay this information in real time. Capturing this data will allow shipowners to improve overall maintenance cycles of vessels, including condition monitoring and condition-based monitoring. For example, the sensors will be able to notify shipowners when a piece of equipment requires maintenance.

Power and propulsion: Power generation will change dramatically and quickly in the coming years. There will be alternative fuels, energy-saving devices, renewable energy and hybrid power generation all potentially playing their part. GMTT 2030 describes the challenges as falling into either environmental or commercial. There will be pressures to run ships ever more cleanly, while owners will always be seeking to reduce costs,

Uptake of Tech: LR has dubbed the next couple of decades as the “Technomax era”. Shipowners will be looking to see where, when, how and how much technology will cost them, versus any potential commercial opportunities lost. When they make the decision to go with new advanced materials, or using robots, new sensors or embracing innovations and changes to fuel, power and propulsion, then these strides will bring us “Technomax shipping”.

According to the vision of a brave new maritime world, new Technomax LNG carriers could be built from advanced materials such as graphene to make the vessel lighter, while graphene sensors would detect traces of pollutants and emissions. A Technomax container ship would have on-board data analytics machines, connected to onshore decision-support systems, which will manage maintenance, navigation and communications, enabling it to be a truly “smart” ship. While even the work horses of the sea, the bulk carriers could even be seeing a Technomax make over. Bulkers are envisaged as using hybrid LNG marine diesel fuels mixed with biofuels as their main propulsion.


Time for change

Time for change

Suddenly the accepted wisdom of decades, if not centuries is changing on its head. This is change on an epic scale. The phrase, “paradigm shift” is often over or wrongly used. That is what this is, though, a truly seismic shift in the ways everything is done.

There is fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of the very industry and discipline of shipping. The construction of vessels will change, there will be no people onboard, the ship will bristle with sensors and be conducting billions of calculations about itself, its cargo and where it is.

That is an incredible challenge for shipping to embrace. An industry which has been renowned since time immemorial as being conservative, resistant to change, secretive and cut throat, is suddenly having to change the very fibre and fabric of its being.

In fifty years shipping has come so far, it is almost mind boggling. The advent of containers was the last major leap, but by comparison that seems almost paltry and simplistic. The next 15 years will see change the like of which we can hardly comprehend. But comprehend it we must, and grab it with both robotic hands.

What do you think? How will technology change ships and the very business of shipping? What will it mean to the industry and all those who rely on it? Share your thoughts with us, we’d love to know what you think.