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Digitization of Maritime Transport

Inside the bridge of a ship

In the past years, digitization has started to change the old opera­tional models in many sectors of the industry. There is a vast amount of information exchange in maritime transport, and though it improves efficiency, it also takes time away from steering the ship.

ITS (also called smart traffic and traffic telematics) means the appli­cation of information and communications technology in traffic systems. Smart traffic can improve the profitability, safety, flow, (energy-)efficiency and environmental friendliness of a traffic system by helping to choose the optimal means of transport in terms of the total cost.

An ITS covers the parts of a service chain from data collection, processing and sharing to trip planning and information services during a trip. The service support traffic management, control and monitoring provide information to drivers, passengers and the controllers of the traffic system. Central requirements of ITS are being up-to-date, reliable and easy to use.

The administrative procedures of maritime transport are compli­cated and time-consuming. The majority of administrative duties are done manually and on paper. Large European ports use advanced information systems that have been very successful with significant benefits. However, the information systems of ports are usually not compatible, which limits the benefits. Electronic information transfer might not be used at all in the smallest ports.

Shipping companies usually have to enter the same information over and over again for each port visit, and often manually, resulting in a waste of time and possibility of errors. Maritime shipments are usually not well integrated into the logistics chains of land transport, which weakens the efficiency and transparency of communication.

One significant obstacle to developing transparency is the uncer­tainty of the reliability of the information systems, as all information in the transport chain is confidential and should not be exposed to outsiders. However, good planning can ensure that each entity in the transport chain only gets to view the information they are supposed to.

Decreasing satellite costs and new data transfer systems have reduced the cost of data transfer between vessels and the entities on land. The price of different kinds of devices and machines has also dropped. This has opened a whole new world – here are a few examples:

  • Maintenance and inspections of the ship's hull and systems used to be, mostly, one-time checks when docking or similar. However, continuous digital monitoring has enabled maintenance in advance, without the need for unexpected, expensive and lengthy maintenance breaks. At best, docking can be postponed if three is no need for any procedures.

  • Real-time tracking means routing, rerouting and other change management is quick and easy. Up-to-date information on the weather, delays or any problems at the port is available when planning the route and speed of a ship.

  • Cruise lines have introduced smartphone applications for passengers which are useful before, during and after the trip. It's possible to make a restaurant or theatre reservation, a notification of a change in schedule or even open the door of one's cabin with an app. 

  • Remote steering, where the captain can steer the ship from an office on land, has eased the workload of the crew. There will be unmanned ships in operation soon, with the first one to be launched in Norway later this year.

Historically, technological innovations in the maritime industry have been invented by people working in the field. However, nowadays researchers and entrepreneurs from other fields are contributing to the research and development of the maritime industry. The industry is being shaped by so-called open innovation systems, which means that new innovations are inspired by other industries such as the automotive industry, air traffic and even shopping malls.

However, the greatest effect of digitization on maritime transport is the change in the business models. Maritime transport business has developed over a long period of time, and different entities, such as shippers, forwarders, stevedoring companies, shipping companies, shipowners and authorities each have their own specific role in the value chain.

The whole system is now undergoing a great transformation stem­ming from the development of a platform economy in the industry, and new players are entering the market offering maritime shipping services without owning any tonnage.

These service providers can offer transport services in every part of the world without having a physical presence in the location by managing and bringing together information on cargo and available shipping capacity.