Digitalization, blockchain and IoT in maritime transport

There is hardly anything in logistics and maritime transport that has had so rapid development last decades, as digitalisation. Big data, cloud computing, blockchain, autonomous shipping, IoT (Internet of Things), robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are transforming maritime into something we have not seen before.

Automation of vessels has been discussed widely recently. However, the main advancement in maritime digitalisation is not automation, but handling data in ports, blockchains, and IoT. This article gives a small overview of the most important recent digitalisation issues in maritime.

The maritime business involves a large number of operators both at the seaside and the landside. There is a lot of information exchange related to international trade and maritime transport concerning orders, confirmations and billing. Terms of delivery, shipping terms and shipping contracts have to be written and agreed on before a transportation task can take place.

As a basics objective logistics is that the products are delivered at the right place at the right time. This requires that the parties involved can get tracking information, prior notifications and notifications about changes.

The administrative procedures of maritime transport are complicated and time-consuming. Shipping companies usually have to enter the same information over and over again for each port visit, and often manually, resulting in a waste of time and the possibility of errors. Maritime shipments are usually not been well integrated into the logistics chains of land transport, which weakens the efficiency and transparency of communication. One significant obstacle to developing transparency is the uncertainty of the reliability of the information systems, as all information in the transport chain is confidential and should not be exposed to outsiders.

Ports are important nodes for information where dozens of operators are in contact with each other when handling a piece of cargo, these systems help vessels, companies operating in port and authorities to share information fast and reliably. This issue of data overload has been handled by single-window systems and port community systems, that combine data from various sources and deliver where required.

An advanced example of these data driven port-systems is Wärtsilä’s Port and Traffic Management Solutions aiming at seamless maritime traffic control, vessel, and coast monitoring and provide tools to ensure Just-in-Time arrivals.

In whole transport chains, blockchain technology seems to be the latest answer to reduce errors and make information processing faster and more reliable. Blockchain technology is based on cryptographic techniques. It keeps track of all the changes and transactions that are made to the piece of information under study. This way errors and misuse of the information can nearly be eliminated.

In 2018 A.P. Moller-Maersk and IBM announced the creation of the TradeLens platform, that allows to provide blockchain solutions for most shipping services. TradeLens helps shipping lines, freight forwarders, port authorities, customs authorities, and customers to manage and track the paper trail by digitising the supply chain process from end to end. A year later several major container carriers like CMA CGM, Hapag Lloyds, ONE, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) joined the IBM’s blockchain platform. Also, ports and terminals are joining the TradeLens platform (DP World, South Asia Gateway Terminals, QTerminals, Yilport Holding and others).

Another important step in maritime digitalization is IoT (Internet of Things) that describes the network of physical objects, so known as, “things” that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies that are used for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet.

There are various examples of how various IoT systems has changed shipping and navigation:

  • Automooring. Today the ships are constantly in connection with the port they are arriving next. In most advanced ports there are automatic mooring systems, where the vessels contact via the Internet to the automatic mooring systems, that adjust themselves to the right height already before the vessel arrives. An example of this can be seen in Tallink’s Star and Megastar at port os Tallinn and Helsinki.
  • Maintenance and inspections of the ship’s hull and systems used to be mostly one-time checks, for example when docking. Now, however, continuous digital monitoring has enabled maintenance in advance, without the need for unexpected, expensive and lengthy maintenance breaks. At best, docking can be postponed if there is no need for any actions. These checks can also be carried out by underwater drones.
  • Constantly updated weather and environmental information, like ice data, weather and maps, navigation information facilitate work on the ship’s bridge and, when used correctly, increase both efficiency and, in particular, safety. Navtex is a famous example of weather system.
  • Real-time tracking allows routing, rerouting and follow up of the cargo. For example Seacargotracking offers multiple tracking services.
  • Vessels may inform their estimated time of arrival (ETA) in port when planning their route and speed. An advanced example of this is EfficientFlow system introduced by Port of Gävle and port of Rauma.
  • Remote steering, where the captain can steer the ship from an office on land, will ease the workload of the crew and enables leaving the bridge for other tasks in the ship. There will also be unmanned ships in operation in a decade. Remote pilotage has been already tested by Finnpilot in port of Rauma.
  • Different reporting, e.g. reporting fuel consumption to shore allowing continuous management of big data and with help of IT systems. There are several solution providers in the market, who offer services and technologies for shipping companies, such as NAPA, ABB, Kongsberg, Marorka, Wärtsilä and Logimatic/Sertica.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and its subset deep learning have also achieved an important role in the development of new technologies and solutions. Complex algorithms that are being developed make cargo movement easier and safer. Today, artificial intelligence is the key technology for port automation, cargo monitoring and handling. It utilises existing and real-time data for making better decisions and to improve the efficiency of the ports. Smart ports that use AI can handle increasing cargo and traffic, cut human error, make supply chain more productive and also optimise employees working hours. Ports all over the world are integrating AI into their port infrastructures (Rotterdam, Hamburg, Singapore, Shanghai, Le Havre HAROPA, and others).

Always, when digitalisation is in concern, there are also risks concerned. The stakeholders involved in the supply chain should adopt a holistic approach to managing their cyber risks. To develop effective cybersecurity measures, the company should concentrate on three pillars of effective cybersecurity: people, processes, and technology. The main recommendations for ports and port facilities for the development of effective cybersecurity is to identify all their critical assets, relevant dependencies, and vulnerabilities, review them and create a security framework that suits the company in concern.

During last 2 years under pandemia lockdowns, we have all witnessed how digitalisation has changed our every-day life. The same has happened at sea. According to Inmarsat and MarineInsight the impact of COVID-19 on ship operations is evidenced by a massive increase in the use of remote services such as pilotage and surveying. Similarly, crew training and officer examinations went fully online for the first time ever in some jurisdictions. More broadly, global trade facilitation saw an explosion in the use of digital tools, including massive growth in consumer demand for e-commerce and the use of online booking platforms for shipping freight.

There is no way back, maritime is more and more about IT. Digitalisation has come to stay.

Text written together with reserarcher Dan Heering, Estonian Maritime Academy and published in Meremees 4/2021.

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