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Palfinger August 2022

Review of Smart Ship Technology 2016 Conference

by Chris Balls AFNI  MRINA (Article first published in Seaways)


Eighteen papers were presented at the Smart Ship Technology Conference, covering a variety of subjects 

The keynote address covered the link between smart ships and smart shipping. The business model of the shipping industry has changed significantly several times. Key events have included the advent of the fossil fuel market and the establishment of merchant traders around the world leading to liner and tramp trades to fit the markets, followed by the move to oil as fuel and bulk shipping expansion. However, most of these business models were based on individual ships. It is only recently that the advent of greatly improved communications has enabled changes towards efficiently operated fleets of vessels. These operate in what can be termed a ‘smart shipping’ way, with ever improving integration into overall world markets, meeting industry requirements for through transportation.

Ship technology is running out of solutions to make the actual ships more efficient, however, there is still scope for more efficient overall management in order to improve performance.

Automation of vessels has, to a certain extent, led to de-skilling of the industry, although it may be more accurate to say the skills required to runs ships have changed. The availability of data to enable more cost effective running of vessels has improved significantly and improvements in communication have led to it being much easier to provide centralised support.

Whilst there are various definitions of what is considered a smart ship, it is generally agreed that a smart ship is one that integrates data from a wide variety of sources in order to contribute to, and improve, the operational efficiency of the vessel in order to complete its function in a safe and cost effective manner.


Various papers discussed the regulatory issues surrounding the development of smart technology. The current SOLAS regime has varying exemption and equivalence provisions which can be used  - and indeed have been used  - to develop novel ideas. There will, of course, need to be modifications as autonomous vessels are introduced. The Master’s role is one critical issue. Remotely operated vessels will require some changes in the interpretation of SOLAS, in particular on such aspects as keeping a proper lookout. Work being undertaken by the UK’s Marine Autonomous Systems Working Group in developing a Code of Practice for Marine Autonomous Systems was described [See Seaways, November 2015]. It is hoped that this work will provide a good foundation for developing internationally recognised standards and the necessary update of the relevant regulatory regimes.


Many of the papers mentioned the importance of reliable and cost-effective communication to enable the rapid transmission and analysis of data and its use within smart systems. Ship intelligence and connectivity is a major part of smart development. Efficiently integrating this into the field of ship operations is of major importance in ensuring that shipping by sea remains an attractive proposition for developing world trade in a sustainable way.

Sensors and Monitoring

Papers on the latest developments in sensors and monitoring included discussions on the best ways of utilising this data and how best to integrate it with human-based systems. While this technology may ultimately allow vessels with even smaller and eventually non-existent crews, these developments have a more immediate benefit for existing vessels. For example, ultrasonic monitoring of the watertight integrity of hatch covers is a possibility. This technology presents a good basis for developing ever smarter ships.

Condition monitoring in particular is benefiting from the continual improvements in sensor and communication technology. Wireless monitoring systems are gaining more acceptance as technology evolves to cope with the challenges of shipboard environments. Developments in augmented reality technology have the potential to greatly improve maintenance functions by enabling easy reference to data for those engaged in undertaking maintenance and reducing the chances of mistakes leading to costly failures. Data obtained on strain, motion and fatigue from existing vessels can be of great use in developing new designs as well as ensuring that existing vessels operate within their limitations by ensuring that the operators have data readily available to help them make appropriate decisions. As with much relatively new technology there are, of course, significant set up costs to balance expected future savings.

Unmanned vessels

A design code for unmanned maritime systems using a goal based structure similar to that used in the Naval Ship Code was described. The design code consists of tiers with increasing levels of detail. Tier 0 sets out the overall aim, tier 1 describes high level goals, tier 2 establishes functional objectives, tier 3 describes performance requirements and finally tier 4 gives solutions  - which are not actually defined as such in the code. The code is divided into several chapters covering structure, stability, control systems, electrical systems, navigation systems, propulsion and manoeuvring, and fire.

Autonomous ships

The use of autonomous ships has been discussed for many years. While the technology exists, fully autonomous ships may be a while away. These vessels are essentially an extension of technology that is used for the unmanned vessels mentioned above. Of course there is increasing use of autonomous vessels for survey functions where operation is   linked to a mother ship or shore installation. These have developed as a logical extension of remotely operated vessels. Speakers looked at regulatory concerns, and at cyber security and how this will become ever more important as technology and communication systems evolve.

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