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How ship tech is becoming more sustainable

By leveraging the latest autonomous technologies to avoid environmentally disastrous collisions and cut down on fuel consumption, the marine industry is progressing toward these important sustainability targets.

How ship tech is becoming more sustainable
[Scanrail/AdobeStock]

Last November, an autonomous, zero-emission ship developed by a Norwegian company set sail on its first journey through the Oslofjord inlet. After a successful voyage to Oslo, Norway, the ship is now undergoing a two-year trial with one goal in mind: to become the first certified crewless, all-electric container vessel of its kind, all while reducing CO2 emissions, improving safety conditions, and revolutionizing the world of shipping technology. As autonomous and sustainable shipping efforts continue, a new question for leaders arises: are these efforts truly essential to the maritime shipping industry?

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Last year, amid an unprecedented uptick in e-commerce, global businesses mobilized more than 5,400 container ships across the world’s oceans. The deadweight tonnage likely exceeded a staggering 2 billion. This scale demonstrates the degree to which the maritime industry is shouldering the burden of global supply chains. Any optimizations or sustainability improvements to these fleets, technologies, and logistics would have significant macro effects, bringing shipping companies more in line with their carbon-neutral initiatives.

A 2020 International Maritime Organization report showed that the maritime industry’s contributions to human-caused emissions increased from 2.76% in 2012 to 2.89% in 2018. However, newly improved marine technologies, from self-driving ships to green fuels, are being prepared for wider adoption to reduce environmental harm.

Autonomous technologies can help avoid collisions, reducing the potential for spills.

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Amid such crowded seas, ship collisions can occur. From an environmental perspective, the devastation is often most acute when these accidents involve oil tankers. In many instances, collisions can be due to a shortage of crew or adequate training. As much as 75%-96% of marine accidents are attributable to human error, with a total cost of $1.6 billion over just five years.

In 2021, the International Maritime Organization completed a four-year scoping exercise aimed at determining how the “safe, secure and environmentally sound” operation of autonomous vessels could be incorporated into its regulatory framework. The IMO identified a number of prerequisites, such as establishing the functional and operational requirements of remote-control stations. Once all the critical infrastructure and policies are in place, they will enable the use of autonomous technologies that can help with important areas, such as collision avoidance, reducing fuel spills, and debris. Computer or camera vision, GPS, radar, and vessel traffic data are also all-important tools in collision avoidance.

Maritime experts note that groundings and collisions often result from insufficient situational awareness. Many are already welcoming “cobot” technologies that help with monitoring hazards and maintaining safe distances. By utilizing the concept of “geofencing,” autonomous technologies can also help ships avoid particularly sensitive or restricted environmental areas.

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Autonomous ships are more navigationally efficient, which means less fuel waste.

When vessels are better equipped to monitor their surroundings, adjusting their movement and speed autonomously as needed, it doesn’t just help with collision avoidance. It also helps them get from point A to point B with little time or fuel wasted.

There is a natural human lag time between when a ship drifts slightly off course and when crews notice and correct. Often, these course corrections are dramatic. Autonomous and automated navigational technologies, on the other hand, can detect subtler changes and respond with well-measured adjustments. This means fewer crew members are needed.

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By reducing the size of human crews, the industry could also reduce the onboard infrastructure and supplies required to support them. That could make these ships more lightweight, enabling them to get to their destinations faster and with less fuel. Alternatively, some of that space could be repurposed so that more cargo can fit in one trip.

Innovators must weigh the pros and cons, in and beyond green fuels.

In most areas of innovation, especially on a global scale, nothing is perfect. If you pull at a thread, things might start to unravel, but then you can craft something entirely new and more resilient. Green shipping fuels demonstrate this idea.

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Green methanol, ammonia, hydrogen, and nuclear are all contenders for fuels of the future, but improvements are still needed. Part of the issue is that these ships require large and consistent amounts of power, meaning that the fuels in question must be affordable and available at a scale that makes them viable. Biofuels can be blended with conventional fuels, but they don’t always deliver against price and availability assessments. Another possibility is liquefied natural gas (LNG), which emits less CO2 than traditional oil-based shipping fuels. It’s still a fossil fuel, however, which is why EY Global Shipping Leader Claus V. Jensen and I expect that it’s probably more of a bridge to the future than a long-term, sustainable energy alternative.

The shipping industry also needs to factor in the ability to store and transport green fuels safely. Green methanol can be easily stored as a liquid at ambient temperature, but producing it cleanly is significantly expensive. Green hydrogen and ammoniate might have more long-term potential than biofuels and methanol for production-related reasons. The production of green hydrogen can leverage concurrent advancements in wind, solar, or hydro-generated electricity.

While all of these variables make the future of green fuels uncertain, there is a clear industry push in the direction of greener shipping with greener fuel. Governments and non-government organizations think there’s room to cut emissions further, potentially to zero over the next few decades. According to CNBC, there is likely going to be a significant shift from diesel-powered ships to electric battery-powered ships in an effort to reduce toxic ammonia emissions and to help solve the current supply chain issues. Additionally, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has planned for a mandatory governmental levy on shipping fuel to fund additional low-carbon shipping tech R&D.

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By leveraging the latest autonomous technologies to avoid environmentally disastrous collisions and cut down on fuel consumption, the marine industry is progressing toward these important sustainability targets. Weighing the pros and cons of new eco-friendly fuel alternatives will also significantly factor into the industry’s long-term sustainability. With these innovations as tools, the shipping industry can become more efficient, sustainable, and future-aligned.


Jeff Wong is the Global Chief Innovation Officer of Ernst & Young, one of the largest professional services organizations in the world.

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