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Shipping: There’s an App for that

Shipping: There’s an App for that
For three decades Martin Stopford has been known for his work as a leading shipping economist, with his market musings monitored by attentive shipping executives. Recently Stopford has become impassioned by what he sees as probably the greatest revolution yet, the use of “smart” technology to achieve new levels of efficiency, reliability and safety in the sea transport business.

But as other transport industries put this exciting new technology to work, Stopford sees shipping continuing to focus on ecoships, producing modest gains with 30-year old technology.

BLUE Communication’s Alisdair Pettigrew caught up with the British economist to explore his newest ideas.

Martin Stopford, for so long recognised and lauded for his thought leadership in shipping economics through his work as Head of Research at Clarksons, has, by his standards, been taking it easy lately. No longer as closely affiliated with Clarksons, although he maintains a role as Non-Executive President of Research, Stopford has been afforded the time to pursue other ideas beyond economics. These have been bolstered by a newfound freedom, aided by what he describes as being “more relaxed about what people think”.

His latest thinking emanates from a belief in the power of knowledge and that, given the recent advances in computing, information and communication, shipping could be a lot safer and a lot more efficient. He argues that greater safety levels and efficiency could be achieved if shipping were able to mirror the recent strategies adopted in air transport, road distribution and the automobile industry. In all these industries, Stopford continues, IT, data and software are producing significant advances in design and automation – safety and efficiency in shipping which “could improve transport performance by at least 30%”.

“We are not talking about a self-drive Google car. Putting no-one on a ship is a massive step,” acknowledges Stopford, also referencing Rolls Royce’s work around drone ships. “The trick is to innovate on a manageable step by step basis. For example, there are areas where congestion might call for a land based sea traffic control centre that works through the vessel’s control system. But on other parts of the voyage automatic navigation would be safer and more efficient. All this technology is readily available.”

I put to him that, factoring in one of his well-used facts - that 85% of shipowning industry own less than five vessels. Therefore, realistically, installing complex data software and IT systems on ships and forming land-based control centres requires large scale coordination that most shipowners have no time or ability to develop or create.

“It needn’t be that complex. We need a granular approach. Smartphones and apps have meant we can escape from big expensive software systems – for most shipowners they may be better off with an app that does the job properly,” contemplates Stopford.

“If you look what UPS are doing, they have a transponder on every truck. In this world of smartphones, you could have a server on each ship collecting the information from the sensors; processing it and transmitting it to the central database. There are many uses for this information. Fault reporting; condition based monitoring, performance appraisal and providing a warehouse of data for operational planning and optimisation. Boeing call their product an Aircraft Health Management (AHM) system. “In the end you need to be clear on what you want to do – there are all sorts of things that smartphone technology has unleashed. There is nothing you can’t know, but the challenge is understanding how the industry should collect and use this information productively,” adds Stopford.

Incorporating even a basic version of this technology would not just improve safety and efficiency, argues Stopford. “With routine standards of technology, then people (regulators) would also stop bothering you,” he continues, citing impending European Union Measuring, Reporting and Verifying (MRV) rules as an example.

But when does the revolution start? “While the information and ability to revolutionise is there, I am not sure we have the willingness or the trigger yet to change,” Stopford continues.

“Really we’re trying to stir a pot – but to get the ‘revolution’ to a level is difficult. I do think there is an interest in the general concept. I have found that people are interested but really the question is what you do about, because you can’t go back to the office to get someone working on it because the industry is so slim on technical resources. What we are doing is building is an awareness and receptiveness that might in due course open the way for people to do some fairly basic stuff.”