“[There is] increasing momentum in the demand for greener shipping solutions [from customers]”

Sailing into the future

How cargo vessels are expected to change


JULY 2021 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

The nearly week-long blockage of the Suez Canal in March delivered a sharp reminder as to just how crucial cargo shipping is to global trade: around 50,000 vessels carry about 90% of the goods that cross oceans. At the time, the shipping journal Lloyd’s List estimated that up to $400 million in economic damage was caused each hour the Ever Given, one of the world’s largest container ships, was stuck. The Suez incident struck an industry already buffeted by the pandemic, and one that is on course for further upheavals in the coming years.

Technological advancements are set to transform cargo shipping, with shifts to greener power, deployment of autonomous vessels, increased use of AI, and further digitalisation of operations all currently being worked on by the industry.

Annually, the shipping sector emits more than a billion tonnes of carbon, which, if it were measured as a country, would make it the world’s sixth-biggest polluter, after Japan.

In 2018, the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a global regulator, set an industry-wide target of at least halving emissions from 2008 levels by 2050.  However, at the mid-June meeting of its Marine Environment Protection Committee, it announced a plan for shipping to decarbonise by 1.5% a year, which would leave the industry short of its earlier target.

“If the IMO can’t deliver — because they have to reach a consensus with so many interested parties — then we hope the EU, through their Emission Trading System, will be able to put the industry on the right track,” said Edmund Yeo, implementation manager for Northeast Asia at Maersk, speaking shortly before the committee sat.

The EU is planning to add shipping to its cap-and-trade scheme — the world’s largest — by January 2022. However, it’s a move that Japan opposes on the grounds that it could undermine global decarbonisation efforts.

Maersk is seeing “increasing momentum in the demand for greener shipping solutions” from customers, and is looking primarily into the use of three fuels — carbon-neutral methanol, alcohol-lignin blends, and green ammonia — as well as other biofuels, explains Yeo.

In 2023, Maersk is scheduled to launch the world’s first carbon-neutral liner vessel, which will run on methanol. It is aiming for its entire operations to be carbon net-zero by 2050.

The industry will have to accelerate the deployment of such vessels if it is to decarbonise in time, notes Juan Jose Barahona, head of less-than-full container load shipping for APAC at Rhenus Logistics.

“We need to factor in the time it takes to build a single vessel, as well as the lifespan of a vessel, which is 20 to 25 years. So, vessels that are commercially viable by 2030 should be able to achieve the 2050 target,” says Barahona.

In addition to biofuels, there are innovative technologies leveraging solar and wind power, such as the Aquarius Marine Renewable Energy (MRE) system from Fukuoka start-up Eco Marine Power. Aquarius MRE combines rigid sails, solar panels, and energy storage and charging — along with a controlling computer — for zero-emission propulsion.

The solar portion of the system has already been installed on the Japanese-built cargo ship MV Panama. The plan is to deploy the complete Aquarius MRE solution on a vessel this year, according to Eco Marine Power founder and chief technology officer Greg Atkinson.

“The Paris Agreement, emissions trading schemes, and CO2 emission reduction targets are driving the uptake of solutions like Aquarius MRE,” reports Atkinson, who says his company is “actively discussing how to utilise our technologies with several ship owners and shipyards”.

The company is also working on other new tech, including wind turbines, fuel cell batteries, and a very flexible type of photovoltaic panel.

“However, one of the most significant regulatory hurdles we face is the unclear and varying technical guidelines from the ship classification societies,” notes Atkinson. “When it comes to new technologies, some of the classification societies have been slow to react and there needs to be more focus by these organisations on working together so that there are common guidelines.”

Regulatory issues will also be a major factor in another next-generation shipping technology: autonomous vessels.

Rhenus Logistics’ Barahona believes there will need to be “clear regulations in place in order to bring benefit to the industry”, and notes that fully autonomous ships with no crew could “usher in a new era of piracy and cybersecurity threats”.

Although smaller autonomous ships are already being trialled for relatively short journeys, Maersk’s Yeo doesn’t see crewless vessels for intercontinental routes on the horizon yet. In addition to the fact that crews have a lot of work to do on board aside from navigating the ship, there are also considerations related to existing maritime rules.

“Ships are legally required to stop and support rescue missions, particularly if lives are at stake. At the moment, it’s quite difficult to imagine an autonomous vessel being able to make that decision to stop and turn around to help,” says Yeo.

However, there is a shortage of trained seafarers willing to undertake long journeys, and Yeo sees further automation as one solution to that.

Digital technology is being increasingly deployed across Maersk’s operations. Use of the company’s mobile app by customers to book, amend, and track shipping orders has been growing exponentially in recent years, according to Yeo.

The company also launched its Captain Peter virtual assistant (named after the Danish sea captain father of Maersk’s founder) in 2019. This allows the 78% of customers currently using it to monitor the inside of their containers throughout their journey, and receive real-time alerts if problems occur.

AI has multiple potential applications in the shipping industry, including optimising business processes, according to Rhenus’ Barahona, while “digitalisation and automation of traditional operations will have a transformational impact on logistics”.

At the very least, this next-generation tech should keep giant container vessels from running aground and clogging up the world’s busiest waterways. •