Green ships, scrubbers and all things digital

The challenge for shipping today is to deal with environmental and tech issues based on facts and science, and not have solutions driven by lobbyists and the ever-expanding universe of industry groups alone, argues Greg Atkinson, the founder of Eco Marine Power.

Some years ago at shipping events there was barely a mention of green ship technologies and although there were plenty of digital systems around, they were not promoted with the same zeal as they are today. At times one could get the impression that at some point during the last few years there’s been a major technological shift in the shipping sector. But that’s probably not the case, although the marketing teams are doing a great job of creating that impression.

The development time-frame for most new technologies can be measured in years so anything that seems like it has just appeared, hasn’t really. Green shipping technologies for example have been on the agenda since at least the 1980s, although they’ve been tagged with a variety of names along the way. Not that I’m complaining, as a CTO in a company that is developing renewable energy systems for ships I’m quite happy that the mood has changed. But I’m also aware that in many cases it’s just the mood that’s changed, not much else.

For instance a couple of years ago I was explaining to a senior manager at a ship management company how easily they could install our fuel monitoring system on their ships. The idea being that the crew would not have to manually log fuel consumption data and calculate CO2 emissions. The upfront cost was about the same as heading to a couple of shipping conferences in business class, so it wasn’t a major investment decision. But basically I was told that the crew followed instructions and that they had plenty of time to do such tasks. Of course that’s not the same approach taken by all ship management firms or shipping companies, but believe it or not, I still have similar encounters from time to time. The technology to automate many tasks has been available for some time and plenty of people will talk about it, but often that’s as far as things proceed.

Meanwhile, the trend towards embracing more environmentally friendly technologies and practices is now firmly on the agenda and that’s a positive. Yes, terms like eco ships and green shipping are probably over-used and I’m sometimes guilty of that transgression myself. But at least when you mention alternative power and propulsion options these days you’re not considered part of some fringe group. The challenge now is to deal with environmental issues based on facts and science, and not have solutions driven by lobbyists and the ever-expanding universe of industry groups alone. Because over the longer term, I don’t believe it will benefit the industry or the environment, for technologies to be implemented despite the legitimate concerns of ship owners and shipping companies, simply because of eco-politics. If that happens, then there’s a risk that investment will flow towards solutions and technologies that are not effective, while other promising solutions and technologies might be ignored.

One way to avoid this situation could be for shipping companies to take a more active role in the new product development process. This could include becoming joint owners of intellectual property or investing directly in start-up ventures. There are tentative steps being taken in that direction and some companies like NYK Line in Japan, have actively been driving research for many years. But there’s plenty of scope for greater collaboration between technology developers and shipping companies. It would also be a good way to tap into the skills of those working at sea and involve them more actively in R&D projects.

But I don’t wish to convey the impression that the shipping sector is not concerned about the environment. I can’t recall ever meeting a naval architect, technical manager, chief engineer or executive at a shipping company that didn’t care about the ocean and the environment. It’s more often a case of what can they do when confronted by the reality of new regulations, tight cost margins and an already heavy work load. Many companies are doing what they can, although I’d single out cruise ship companies for probably being able to do more.

That leads me onto the very delicate topic of scrubbers. Scrubbers are one of those technologies that seem to have suddenly burst onto the scene, but of course they’ve been under development for some years. I usually try to avoid the subject altogether as the debate usually leaves the realm of science and engineering and ventures towards the eco-politics that I mentioned earlier. Curiously the eco-politics works both ways with scrubbers; on one hand they are labelled as green technology and an important step towards cleaning up shipping emissions. On the other hand however, they are being criticised for pumping toxic waste into the oceans (for open-loop systems) or sending toxic waste ashore for an unknown fate (for closed loop systems). Then again I’ve read that an industry group has stated that the waste pumped into the sea isn’t toxic at all. The only comment I dare to make on the subject is that it seems to me, that spending a couple of million dollars per ship to clean exhaust so that a dirty fuel can be used, is not my idea of a great leap into the mid-21st century. But then again, many ships are being fitted with scrubbers so I expect the debate to keep raging for some time. Also we need to bear in mind that scrubbers will reduce airborne emissions and so in that regard, they are a step in the right direction.

Finally a few words about all things digital. On the surface it may not appear that there’s much automation or digital technology onboard ships, but the reality is that we wouldn’t have 180,000 dwt bulkers operating with just a couple of dozen crew, if these technologies were not already at work. Digital technology is nothing new, but it’s one of those topics that the marketing and media teams have latched onto, so apparently it’s something new after all. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing if the focus is on the right areas.

I prefer not to use the term digitalisation since what is often meant is information technology (IT). So on that basis, I’d say there was plenty of scope for the shipping sector to consider how to use IT not so much as a means to replace seafarers, but more importantly how to assist them with their work, improve their lifestyles and provide opportunities for career enhancement via on-board learning and training courses. Of course automated futuristic ships attract attention, but I often feel those of us ashore forget about those who are at sea and how we can develop technologies specifically to help them.

There’s plenty of scope to improve access to IT, automate reports and use machine learning and/or artificial intelligence (AI) to take over some of the more mundane tasks. Many ship IT systems don’t allow the crew to access cloud storage and/or limit email file sizes to such an extent that it’s not even possible to send the crew a user manual. I often hear the excuse that the lack of satellite coverage prevents the crew having good access to IT, but that’s not a limiting factor when ships are in or near major ports, where access to 3G or 4G mobile networks is possible. And yet even when a ship is in port, you often still can’t send a software update via email, shared online document storage or even via an FTP server. Yes autonomous ships are interesting, but there are some basic technology issues that still need to be addressed as well.

To finish on an optimistic note I believe that with some further infusion of new ideas and technologies, that there’s every reason to think the future for shipping will be bright. We just need to be smart about how we get there and although technology will be driving us forward – let’s not forget about the human element.


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