By now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is well under way and rapidly transforming a range of sectors from manufacturing to healthcare. But the maritime industry has also welcomed many of the boldest innovations.

Now, there are signs that the sector is entering its own Maritime 4.0 with increasingly connected ports, the emergence of autonomous ships and the growth of alternative fuels.

One area that could see ample benefits from these developments is shipping. Today, most shipping markets are globalised — with many different yet interlocking parts including ports, goods distribution centres and vessel traffic services. However, maritime services have, until the last decade been relatively national or regional.

For shipping to continue playing a vital role in international trade, both the vessels and the world’s maritime cities that service them will need to integrate these technologies into their infrastructure and operations.

Ramping up digitisation

Digital capabilities are crucial across the entire maritime industry — a fact which the complications of 2020 have made all too clear. Although many maritime companies were already quite technology-driven, most were still taken aback by the scale of disruption seen this year.

To minimise the future impact of external influences on the shipping industry, advances in automation and connectivity will be key. For example, predictive maintenance can be used to monitor assets and vessels remotely — in much the same way sensors on data buoys and navigation lights can collect and relay information in real-time to improve maintenance cycles and remove the need for regular inspection.

Alongside these sensors and automated technologies, the shipping sector could even expect to see developments in robotics, such as drones, over the next decade. These drones could be used to reduce human interaction in harsh environments or as part of social distancing measures.

The world’s first fully electric, zero-emission autonomous container ship — the Norwegian Yara Birkeland — was also supposed to be unveiled in 2020.  However, due to the pandemic, the vessel will now be launched in late 2021. This innovation is just the start of what is to come for the shipping industry. In the UK, plans are even underway for a zero-carbon coasting shipping network, which would enable the UK to become a leading innovator in the global maritime sector. Creating a radical zero-carbon approach like this to transport goods as part of an integrated autonomous system has never been attempted anywhere in the world.

As these digital advances continue to propagate across the globe, there will be an increasing need for radical digital infrastructure improvements in the maritime industry and an environment that supports the integration of these technologies. The maritime cities that can offer this will have a strong competitive edge.

Focusing on the environment

The environment will also have a significant impact on how vessels and maritime cities evolve in the coming years — driving demand for high-quality, advanced and eco-conscious maritime solutions.

Global concerns about emissions from the shipping industry have already led the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to implement a range of initiatives aimed at limiting the impact of the sector. The Clean Maritime Plan — which states that all new ships for UK waters ordered from 2025 should be designed with zero-emission capable technologies — has also been introduced.

As a result, manufacturers within the shipbuilding industry are increasingly seeking to develop energy-saving devices and technologies which utilise renewable resources (such as the sun, wind or alternative fuels like hydrogen) to run ships. Many navigation aids are also making full use of renewable resources — using solar energy to power onshore applications such as navigation lights, as well as buoys out in the water.

For these developments to be implemented successfully, it is vital that maritime cities and companies work together to provide the infrastructure and resources needed to support them.

As the UK and Ireland’s leading supplier of marine aids to navigation, Hydrosphere provides high-quality, reliable and cost-effective solutions to the maritime industry. If you have any upcoming projects in the new year that you would like to discuss, please contact the team at