Digitalization as an Enabler of Smart Ships

Marine Marchande

All of us already heard about the causality dilemma: "Which came first: the chicken or the egg". Thus, I asked myself the same question but in another context; which came first: Smart ship or digitalization?

Well, smart-ship is a bundle of digital tools which can be used to build real-time process management systems. The digitalization is not something new, but it is getting much better and standardized. For example, on board ships, and especially at the bridge, all the marine electronics devices (Radars, AIS, GMDSS Radiocommunication Stations...etc) share information with each other through a microcontroller using NMEA Standard.

Thus, the microcontrollers used in the maritime industry have been for decades. But today they are cheaper, easier to program and the new microcontroller systems can use their output more effectively.

So, the four essential tools which are boosting the digitalization of the shipping industry to change are (not an exhaustive list):

  1. Radiocommunication Technology:The major leap forward in satellite communication is the catalyst for the smart ships.In 2006, I remember, when I sailed for the first time as cadet officer on board CMA CGM ships, the internet that I had on board was provided by Inmarsat-4 series with a bandwidth less than 0.5 Mbps. Recently, in May 2017, SpaceX has successfully deployed the fifth-generation fleet Inmarsat-5 with a global Xpress network offering guaranteed high-speed broadband and unparalleled reliability using Ka-band service with a bandwidth more than 50 Mbps.
  2. Telemetric System: which is a device used to measure any quantity. It consists of a sensor, a transmission path, a display and control device. They are now cheaper, robust and can transmit their output to a suitable wireless network. They can monitor everything on a ship. For example, the very large containerships are equipped with sensors in order to measure the wave-induced hydro-elastic response and its implications on the structural response. Moreover, all the tanks are equipped with sensors in order to measure the quantity of the liquid inside the tank.
  3. Big Data and Cloud Computing:The cloud provides storage for the large quantities of data generated by sensors on board ships and transmitted by a reliable satellite communication, without the need to develop in-house server systems. For example, this information can be stored and used for the Marine Asset Management System. Moreover, recently, AP Moller Maersk and IBM formed a joint venture applying blockchain to improve global and digitize supply chains.
  4. Automation and Artificial Intelligence:Automation and artificial intelligence will help to reduce human error, which is considered nowadays as the main cause of accidents at sea.

Nowadays, Ship-owners are well aware of these challenges and the difficulties to implement these tools. These challenges and tools represent a major turning point, just as important as steel ships powered by coal during the industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, Digitalization is being used in many industries to achieve economies of scale and to improve quality, safety and environmental performance.

Ismail BRAHI, Senior Naval Architect, Navy Merchant Officer 1st class

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