How data analytics can help prevent the next maritime disaster

Ami Daniel, CEO of Windward, calls for an international ‘ocean mission control’ to stem the tide of accidents at sea.

Ships are critical to the global economy, carrying $12trn a year. But while ships are vital to international commerce, recent events have also underscored how mismanagement of maritime trade and the vessels that ferry it, can trigger disastrous economic, environmental, and political consequences.

From Beirut port – where a massive store of ammonium nitrate unloaded from a detained ship in very poor condition exploded earlier this month, killing at least 171 people and leaving an estimated 300,000 homeless – to the coast of Mauritius, where the grounded bunker Wakashio has leaked 1,000 metric tons of bunker fuel into the Indian Ocean, the past few weeks have brought stark reminders of the risks of maritime disasters.

Naturally, such episodes spark questions about what steps could have been taken to prevent them, while fuelling demands for stronger measures to forestall the next would-be catastrophe. In a world swimming in data, the answer lies in harnessing the power of predictive analytics to improve maritime intelligence, spot potential trouble, and make smarter decisions earlier that enhance maritime safety – protecting lives, livelihoods, and the environment.

With full transparency and visibility into the status of every voyage, authorities can quickly spot any irregularities

Industry and regulators should join forces to enhance maritime analytics capabilities, with an international ‘ocean mission control’ powered by sophisticated technology that offers early detection of suspicious activity, mitigates human error, and provides real-time visibility into the status and condition of every vessel in the waters.

With full transparency and visibility into the status of every voyage, authorities can quickly spot any irregularities that could presage a potential disaster. Machine learning models are already able to predict the likelihood of accidents and coupled with port state control inspection data – provide a tangible guide for action for authorities globally. For instance, a ship turning off its transmissions might indicate that suspicious activity is afoot, while economically counterproductive movements – like drifting or not making enough port calls to justify ongoing operations – could also point toward criminality. Any warning signs of illicit activity should be heeded and efficiently acted upon.

Insights into such voyage irregularities depend on transparent data – but the Beirut port explosion offers a case study in how stakeholders aren’t doing enough to ensure the availability of such information. Labyrinthine maritime bureaucracies, combined with what Outlaw Ocean Project director Ian Urbina characterizes as “anemic enforcement by shady flag registries,” are designed to protect shipowners and prevent accountability – but the results can be catastrophic.

The current system clearly isn’t doing enough to identify voyage irregularities and stop criminal activity. And accidents? Take the case of the Wakashio. Prior to its collision with a coral reef just off the Mauritian coast, there were a few data points indicating that the vessel merited closer scrutiny. First, the ship was crossing the Indian Ocean for the first time in nearly three years. While this information alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to predict that the vessel would ultimately collide with the reef, any first-time or rare visit to a particular region often raises the risk of an accident. The same goes for any deviation from common sailing lanes; the Wakashio had been outside common lanes for 12 hours before the grounding.

Finally, many island nations lack the capacity or know-how to operate such technology and take action. This can be solved by a de-facto full-service bureau. Only robust, ongoing monitoring of each vessel’s patterns, behaviour and condition can offer the actionable insights authorities need to prevent maritime disasters before they occur. We, as a community, must step up to the challenge by recognising its importance and urgency. Industry players and international governments must collaborate to ensure that all maritime operators are equipped with the digital tools and analytical capabilities they need to keep vessels and their surrounding environments safe.


  1. Good ideas- however “industry” does not willingly cooperate in these types of schemes from the outside. However, savvy insiders do hope to get a leg up….so….there are folks out there who meld multiple data sources with artificial intelligence in efforts to make short term predictions of market movements. I am thinking of the guys in Boston (product tankers) and in Norway (Capesize bulkers). My suggestion is that these efforts, informed by industry insiders (at least the product tanker effort is) form the base of the ideas suggested here. More data feeds can be built in- tie to a specific vessel on a specific voyage at specific time down to the levels of “deviation” from an “optimized” routing.

  2. “many island nations lack the capacity or know-how to operate such technology and take action. This can be solved by a de-facto full-service bureau. ”

    First you have to convince the island nation in question that such investment in bureau services is worthwhile. Mauritius doesn’t lack warning systems – it had the capability to spot Wakashio’s errant track. But two of its warning stations seem to have been offline for over a year. Also it relies to an absurd extent on ‘protocols’ that in this case prevented the coastguard who spotted the danger to raise the alarm or take action directly. Instead, they had to work their way through a complex bureaucratic maze before authority could be given to launch a helicopter or patrol boat to alert the unresponsive ship to imminent danger. The process was still going on when the ship hit the reef.

    ‘Protocol’ was also given as the reason for the NCG not boarding the ship until it had started to leak and break up, after more than a fortnight on the reef. This was nonsense: under Mauritius’ shipping law the NCG had every right to board a ship in Mauritian territorial waters that posed a clear threat to national interests, regardless of the owner granting permission. But the Prime Minister was being advised by a senior adviser who appears to have no relevant experience in shipping, salvage or the environment. And that probably also explains why he took no proactive measures to protect the lagoon after the salvage master told him the ship was ‘stable’. From a salvor’s point of view, that was doubtless true, but the salvor represents the interests of the shipowner and insurer, not the territorial state; what’s ‘stable’ in salvage terms may be far riskier in environmental terms.

    And surely no bureau, however ‘full’ its service, is going to predict influences on a ship’s behaviour that in this case included a birthday party and a desire to get close to the coast to pick up wi-fi? Nor will it spot, for example, issues like fatigue or distraction affecting individual ship’s officers at critical times, which we know have contributed to many accidents in the past.

    There’s certainly scope for using data aggregation and analysis to flag up certaain types of risk, but the danger is that it leads, once again, to complacency if you rely on it too much. Eternal vigilance, rather than reliance on tech systems, is the only guarantor of safety and security.

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