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AI’s maritime role: how will this evolve?

Written by Richard Scott FICS – committee member, London & South East Branch, Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers

Within the maritime community more attention is being focused on how artificial intelligence can be used in a variety of activities. Adopting AI could lead to better decisions and greater efficiency, according to experts. Many opportunities for using it beneficially are becoming visible, but possible problems are prominent as well and so a cautious approach is often recommended.

In a global shipping and ports context AI may be applied to a wide range of actions. These include optimising fleet operations (route planning, and port density and traffic pattern monitoring), predictive maintenance, fuel consumption modelling, cargo optimisation, risk management, supply chain management, and operating autonomous ships.

AI is generally understood to mean a system’s ability to imitate intelligent human behaviour that includes learning, reasoning and problem-solving. In the maritime context it may be used for some tasks that need continuous or frequent decisions, enabling these to be wholly or partly automated to improve efficiency and performance.   

A recent article published by the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies suggested several advantageous outcomes achievable by adopting AI. Reducing costs, improving efficiency, supporting sustainability and eliminating human error could provide substantial contributions to performance improvement, enhancing an organisation’s service quality and reputational status. As a result, according to a Lloyd’s Register assessment “AI is gaining momentum across sectors and is set to become a mainstream technology in the coming decades”.

Some difficulties ahead

Such attributes of AI adoption are attractive but progress in achieving the desired outcomes may prove difficult, or less rapid than envisaged. The Mitags article emphasises this aspect, mentioning that there is a limit to streamlining and assisting operations by automating shipboard activities, commenting that “individuals offer unique skills and capabilities that machines cannot replicate, making a human presence on ships invaluable”.

Others also draw attention to the future of work, as well as aspects including privacy and security. It is envisaged that increased automation of operations could lead to job displacement and changes in the nature of work in the shipping industry. One commentator observed that “AI-based systems also raise concerns about data privacy and cybersecurity, as these systems rely on large amounts of data to operate effectively”. An audience at London International Shipping Week a few months ago heard speakers expressing caution amid practical, legal and regulatory barriers to the adoption of problem-solving AI in the global fleet of merchant ships.

Pointers to the future

On a positive note an example of an AI-based project was reported recently by Swedish maritime technology company Yara Marine. This trial, conducted over three years with business and academic partners, developed an AI-based semi-autonomous voyage planning system, The system was designed to explore how AI and machine learning can enable more energy-efficient voyage planning for ship operators. It was trialled on a car carrier and a products tanker, with results indicating successful energy efficiency optimisation.

The Global Maritime Forum highlights three types of operational optimisation – speed optimisation, capacity utilisation, and voyage optimisation – each of which could provide a 10-24% increase in operational efficiency. For these, additional and more accurate data is required. Collection of this data enables trends to be analysed and dissected and also “unlocks predictive and prescriptive modelling with machine learning and AI”, enabling the best business decisions to be made.       

In its Global Maritime Trends 2050 report published in September last year Lloyd’s Register concludes that (referring to AI) “the maritime sector stands to benefit. Commercial ships will increasingly rely on machine learning, AI and satellite technology to improve shipping safety and efficiency”.

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