High-tech bridge view of a ship

Weighing the question of smart equipment

Jul. 29 2020 - 5 min

Bureau Veritas delves into the state of smart shipping and the challenges of developing smart equipment to support autonomous vessels.

Smart shipping is heavily driven by equipment manufacturers, whose technological advancements have provided the basis for increased ship automation for decades. Thanks to manufacturers, every newbuild is now equipped with sensors and connected onboard systems, and some industry segments boast digitally-controlled motors, propulsion and Dynamic Positioning (DP) systems.

However, fully automated ships remain elusive, even as new technologies are being developed and piloted. While the benefits of smart equipment are many – e.g., improved monitoring, optimized maintenance, increased safety – there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Challenges for accepting smart equipment

First, there is the key question of reliability. As ships become more autonomous and require less onboard crew, reliability of equipment and systems is paramount to ensure that ships function properly. The industry currently prefers to keep control firmly in the hands of the navigation and engine room crew, relying heavily on human expertise and intervention.

Second, owners and operators must consider how to efficiently manage smart equipment. While onboard technology goes a long way in reducing maintenance, smart equipment and systems also consume a great deal of energy. Operators need to weigh the benefits of having low upkeep technology onboard against the energy expenditure that powers smart systems and the skills required to operate these systems.

Third, smart technology remains a largely unregulated area in the marine industry. The lack of existing standards, rules and regulations – notably for data quality, data exchange and cyber safety and security – makes it difficult to assure compliance for smart systems and equipment. When developing or piloting new technology, there are few resources for equipment and systems manufacturers, and as of yet, no unified certification process.

Finally, as with all developing and unstandardized technologies, there is the question of cost. Integrating smart technology onboard typically has exceptionally high CAPEX, and while there is potential for reduced OPEX, definitive numbers are needed to make the business case.

What’s next for smart equipment?

Smart navigation will be the next focus for autonomous technology. Improving visibility over traffic around the vessel will be an invaluable step, helping ships avoid collisions and reducing human error. Manufacturers will develop systems to improve situational awareness and provide decision support to the crew, building on existing marine technology (e.g., sensors and control equipment for dynamically-positioned vessels).

To reach this point, requirements for standardization, regulation and certification must be developed, or adopted from other industries with advanced standardization. The industry will need to standardize IT and OT equipment for data collection and storage, and establish common protocols for data exchange to create properly integrated systems. Classification societies in particular will have a key role to play in bringing together competing marine stakeholders to establish industry-wide rules and regulations.