Automation is Coming to Shipping: What Will it Mean?

According to Martin Stopford, Non-Executive President of Clarkson Research, global shipping has a major problem that needs to be addressed. According to Stopford, the industry has become entangled in an ultra-competitive, old-fashioned mindset that keeps shipping technology stuck in the past. The solution? Getting with the times and integrating automation into across the industry.

Stopford believes that “A fleet of ships would be run the same way BMW runs a car factory.” He’s referring, of course, to the major influx of automation in high-tech manufacturing environments. If the shipping industry hopes to make its tentative recovery this year stick, it’s going to have to look to the future. However, while it’s one thing to say automation is coming to the shipping industry, but what would it actually look like?

Send in the Drones

We’ve all seen the small remote control drones that zip around above local parks, carrying cameras up to incredible vantage points, and the image of U.S. military drones like the Predator and Reaper are on the covers of major newspapers. But not all drones fly, and in fact any kind of vehicle can be automated — including container ships.

Rolls Royce began designing viable unmanned cargo ships almost two years ago, and since then there have been major strides made in the field. With crew costs accounting for almost 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship according to industry experts, there’s a major savings out there for the first operator to eliminate some or all of the human element at sea.

Connected Oceans

The cloud is coming to shipping; tying advanced shipboard systems together with port technology to close the gaps in the ever-expanding internet of things (IoT). Meanwhile, an increasing density of sensors on ships and in warehouses is helping logistics providers keep shipments more organized and efficient than ever before. Automating some of the key physical processes might be the next logical step.

Imagine an advanced version of robotic pick-and-pack technology, like the Kiva robots deployed in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, handling drayage in major ports. As new “Megaships” begin to pull into ports around the world, the complex tasks of loading and unloading the massive amount of freight these behemoths carry quickly and efficiently pose major challenges to existing infrastructure.

Increased connectivity between smart containers, smart ships, and cloud-savvy port logistics operators is paving the way for automation, either in the form of direct robotics or augmented reality systems for employees.

Looking Forward

Of course, with the rise of technology comes a concurrent rise in technological threats, so shipping companies will have to be ready to meet changing security needs. However, in some situations automation can help avoid potential security issues by allowing shippers to send unmanned ships into remote or dangerous areas without risking a crew’s wellbeing.

All things considered, forward thinking logistics providers are already laying the groundwork with smart warehouses, and large-scale automation seems to be right around the corner for the shipping industry.

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