The shipping industry is not usually thought to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology. Other transport industries are seen to be higher-tech and less conservative.
But lo and behold, maritime transport is moving in line with the times and preparing for a future where environmentally conscious and autonomous shipping will be the name of the game.
Cutting harmful emissions
In 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) announced a strategy to halve greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by 2050. The growing use of electricity on board and when in port is helping the industry to clean up its act. Stackers and forklift trucks used to load and unload goods from ships are increasingly powered by electrical batteries or hybrid systems combining batteries and diesel, gas or petrol as well as fuel cell technologies.
More electricity is also used for ship propulsion as they look to rely on hybrid systems using fuel engines, batteries and even fuel cells. Fully electrically propelled ships are no longer a chimera. A number of barges and and ferries already use battery power for traction as well as some commercial ships, over short distances. As battery technology improves, longer journeys will become envisageable. When ships are at berth, they now tend to use cold ironing to power essential services instead of keeping their diesel engines running. Cold ironing is the process of providing shoreside electrical power to a ship while its engines are shut off. A host of IEC International Standards play a crucial role in helping ships rely on more electricity and electrical devices. To name but a few:
IEC technical committee (TC) 21 publishes standards on traction batteries, including safety specifications for these batteries, while IEC TC 105 issues standards covering fuel cell technology. IEC TC 23 publishes IEC 62613 on plugs, socket-outlets and ship couplers for high-voltage shore connection systems. IEC TC 18: Electrical installations of ships and of mobile and fixed offshore units, develops standards which are applicable to all electrical and electronic devices used on board ships. Last but not least, IEC TC 80 issues standards for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, an internationally agreed set of safety procedures which make it easier to rescue a ship in distress, in agreement with IMO.
Increased autonomy and reliance on robots
While fully autonomous ships have yet to materialize, modern systems on board ships are increasingly computer-managed. Routine tasks are progressively automated. Sensors are used to provide information on tide, currents and temperature levels and can be employed to trigger alarms and equipment safety features.
Artificial intelligence (AI) helps captains and crews make critical decisions, reducing the risk of human error. Robots have been devised to inspect the hull of ships below water to detect damage, for instance. They are also used to clean-up oil spills: they suck up the oily water, spin the liquids and send clean water back into the sea. Again, multiple IEC standards pave the way for the reliance on these technologies. IEC TC 47, for instance, prepares standards relating to semiconductor devices, which enable the design, manufacture and use of sensors.
You can learn more about the IEC and its role in maritime transport in the brochure entitled Maritime Transport.