Dr Henry Chen, a retired naval architect, looks at where weather routing has gone wrong and how to improve it.
Recent heavy weather related accidents involving the loss of thousands of containers overboard and ships sinking have created far reaching environmental damage.
It is easy to blame global warming as the cause for increased storm activities and thus let the insurance companies handle sharing millions of dollars of losses hoping such events will not happen again. Unfortunately, the past two decades of recurring accidents seem to indicate that while weather forecasting, computing and communications technologies have improved significantly, the effectiveness of weather routing still lags behind.
Starting from meteorologists practicing the simple art of storm avoidance using 500 millibar upper air and surface pressure charts to infer the direction of storm movement in the 1950s, weather routing technology has evolved into a full-fledged voyage optimisation suite of tools, utilising long range environmental forecasts to save fuel for just in time arrival at the destination. Ships at sea can receive the latest information along with route advisories via satellite broadband communication. While the software can generate beautiful weather graphics of winds, waves and currents, they often cannot relay the accuracy of the forecast and its impact on the voyage plan, surprised by drastic changes in weather from the earlier forecast after the voyage has started.
Major centers around the world produce forecasts beyond 15 days, but acceptable accuracy for wind and wave conditions around major storms remains around three to five days, and even shorter for tropical storms for ship routing purposes. Although each service provider touts their superiority of technology and service, it is difficult to consistently prove that one approach is better than the other when forecast uncertainties can turn a perfectly optimised voyage into a disaster. Furthermore, the widely accessible forecast data on the internet lowers the entrance barrier for the business for startups and disrupters, resulting in price wars and a fragmented market share. Instead of developing better ship models and optimisation algorithms, traditional service providers spend money on marketing and sales efforts, hoping to compete. The recent acquisitions of weather routing companies by classification societies, engine manufacturers and multi -industry weather companies only puts pressure on profitability of the newly acquired business unit. They have to compete for funding in a large organisation whose goal is to sell its main products and services. On the other hand, startups are finding it increasingly difficult to find venture capital funding as the market is not readily scalable and shipping companies are very conservative in adopting new technology without consistently showing high returns on investment as promised.
There are plenty of new enhancements for weather routing as it evolves into a tool for holistic voyage optimisation and fleet management to improve safety and efficiency. Here are some examples:
- Full ship motion predictions instead of limiting sea states as constraints in the routing algorithm to avoid parametric/synchronous roll resonance for container or tank sloshing for LNG ships.
- Low cost, automated high frequency shipboard operations data acquisition system using IoT devices.
- Real-time monitoring/warning APPs for safe navigation.
- Meaningful fleet KPIs to help find causes of performance degradation.
- Quantify the uncertainties of weather prediction using ensemble forecasts from the European Centre and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Improved algorithms to find the optimum route and speed profile for a range of ETAs to avoid fuel waste by integrating into loading/discharging scheduling.
- A risk-based route simulation/selection tool utilising ensemble forecasts to support shore-side and shipboard decisions.
- A virtual ship operations center to host the data and display KPI on performance efficiency, regulatory compliance and safe navigation decision supports.
Except the first two items, the rest requires the development of operational digital twins in order to achieve full benefits. It would require a dedicated team of meteorologists, naval architects, engineers, software developers and data scientists with feedback and guidance from ship operators. Although some of the large ship operators and managers can afford and have already started this R&D effort, the speed and cost-effectiveness can be greatly enhanced if the industry as a whole works and benefits together.
We are living in a 4-D world: Decarbonisation, decoupling and disruption of the supply chain have already drastically changed the traditional shipping business environment. The industry is coming together for the digitisation effort as a cost reduction measure. We also need to improve safety aspects as the increased storm activities and a shortage of experienced seagoing crew as well shore side management talent have resulted in many recent incidents. Unless steps are taken to mitigate the risks by improving the technology of voyage optimisation to assist ship operators, managers and owner/charterers, accidents will happen again in these treacherous water