Evolution of Technology in Shipping

Shipping has been the method of choice for transporting heavy cargo across long distances. Today, marine transportation systems are an integral part of maritime trade, functioning at high efficiency.

However, shipping has tenaciously clung to its traditional roots until the last decade or so. Previously, technology was often considered as somewhat of a liability instead of an asset. The scenario is gradually changing these days, with better and more advanced machinery and communication tools being invented for making a sailor’s life easier.

This is an overview of the various technological advancements in the marine industry, in terms of marine infrastructure, navigation aids, salvage and firefighting support, security systems, and search and rescue facilities.

Technological Advancements in Shipping

  • Marine Infrastructure and Logistics

In marine infrastructure, we primarily focus on ship design and operation. Shipping and shipbuilding has a history of over 5000 years, but post the Industrial Revolution, there has been a cataclysmic change in the approach towards shipping. Be it the energy source that powers the ship, or the hull design, or the engine and propulsion units used, adoption of technology has kept pace with the innovation in machinery within the industry.

Today, fossil fuels are the most popular energy source used in ships. However, given the rising environmental concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, there have been efforts for sustainable growth in shipping. Ship design is undergoing radical changes to maintain the green building regulations specified by the IMO and the latest technologies are being used to facilitate a low carbon footprint. No-ballast ships, LNG fuel for propulsion unit and auxiliary engines, advanced rudder and propeller systems, sulphur scrubber systems, waste heat recovery and exhaust gas circulation, better pump and water cooling system, and solar fuel propulsion are some of the technologies being used for green shipping today.

  • Navigational Aids

Navigation technology has become progressively reliant of information technology, eliminating human error in transmission and thereby improving efficiency manifold. Aids to navigation have been used for hundreds of years to help ships make their way safely through the ocean, avoiding hazards and other dangers. The earliest navigation aids were nautical charts, lighthouses, beacons, and buoys.

With the passage of time, these aids have developed technical roots and anchored themselves firmly in the marine industry. The invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS) has made a monumental difference in the navigation of ships. Satellite-based aids, automatic identification systems (AIS), Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), etc. are being used today, making navigation easier and more efficient than ever before.

The advantage of virtual navigation aids is that they can be easily installed and have low maintenance costs than physical aids. However, the probability of them being tampered with is also higher, which is why they are recommended for use in conjunction with physical navigational aids.

  • Salvage and Firefighting Support

Fires are the most disastrous occurrence onboard ships at sea. In earlier times, detecting fires was a task of constant vigilance and routine checks. The firefighting equipment included buckets of sand and water, of which there was an abundant supply. However, with the advent of fire extinguishers and modern firefighting techniques, the scenario has changed.

Various types of portable fire extinguishers are available today, including foam extinguishers, dry powder and carbon dioxide extinguishers, and soda acid extinguishers. In addition, advanced technology like thermal imaging, infrared detection systems, unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor ships, and improved methods of ventilation have contributed to better fire suppression and prevention methods.

  • Security Systems and Personal Safety Devices

Ship security is one of the most important aspects of ship and personnel safety on the seas. The maritime industry faces a lot of threats like piracy, hijacking, armed robbery, smuggling, narcotics, illegal migration, etc., all of which have a harmful impact on the people and the country. Incidents like the 9/11 terror attack and the bombings of 26/11 in Mumbai have shaped the security efforts of several maritime nations.

To counter this, the International Ships and Port Facility Security Code has directed the efforts towards stepping up security on ships, leading to implementation of new methods for enhanced security.

Technology plays a very important role in achieving this objective, as the advanced security systems and software available today can efficiently identify and help negate potential threats to ships. Devices like X-ray and gamma ray scanners and neutron scanning are used to detect the presence of explosives or drugs. Biometric technology like facial recognition, fingerprint identification, iris/retina scanning, voice recognition, etc. are used to safeguard the sensitive operational areas of the ship. RFID tags, smart robotic underwater surveillance, and sensor-based control of operations are some of the methods used to maintain security on ships.

Personal safety devices are a component of personnel security onboard ships. These include, lifejackets, lifebuoys, breathing equipment, immersion suits, liferafts, and more.

  • Search and Rescue Facilities

Despite high security measures, ships can sometimes be lost, hijacked, or wrecked. In such cases, technology is invaluable in running a search and rescue operation, to save the lives of the people onboard the ships.

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is used to convey the status of a ship in distress to port authorities. Search and Rescue Transponders and handheld personnel location detectors can be used to detect the position of the sailor/ship with maximum accuracy.

Ship-to-shore security alerts, satellite-based location detection, digital calling, etc. are some of the means used to sound distress alerts indicating that the ship is in trouble. Physical distress indicators like smoke signals and pyrotechnics are also a part of the search and rescue portfolio.

The Impact of Technological Advancements

Technological advancements in shipping have improved navigation, safety, and communication a great deal. Innovative devices have successfully contributed towards preserving the lives of hundreds of seafarers.

As the world progresses and new technology comes into existence, the ides of smart shipping, virtual twins, autonomous ships, and robotic equipment for maintenance activities are being proposed. Although there was initially a lot of resistance towards the adoption of technology, the future of shipping looks set to be controlled by new and advanced technological methods.

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