For a few weeks now, a new commercial for one of the best-selling SUVs on the market can be seen on television. I wouldn’t remember the commercial, if it were not because in addition to all kinds of features, it advertises that it can travel on highways with no assistance from the driver: it reduces its speed when a slower vehicle is in front of it, stays in its lane, maintains a set speed, etc. Although for merely legal reasons hands must always be on the steering wheel, the driverless car, or at least, its technology, is already here. The fourth industrial revolution is already a reality at the start of the 21st century: from increasingly autonomous cars to vacuum cleaner robots that map your home and which you control from your phone or smart speakers you address by voice and, surprisingly, they understand you.
Nor is the world of marine logistics and transport oblivious to this technological revolution. The sector’s major players are already investing large sums to be the first to arrive. Not long ago, we saw how Maersk, MSC, CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd and ONE have created an alliance in order to coordinate and standardize all the advances in digitalization that each of them is independently implementing. In a few years, we’ll see container terminals being operated in a manner similar to Alibaba’s or Amazon’s warehouses: robots moving containers without the need for human action, except to supervise the work or resolve incidents.
Another good example is the trip that a crewless ship (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, MASS) made transporting oysters between the United Kingdom and Belgium crossing the English Channel; or FALCO, which is the name of the autonomous ferry which sails between islands in Finland. At the end of June, we will be focusing on the new developments that may be presented on this subject at the Autonomous Ship Technology Conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Autonomous navigation is the second significant challenge facing the world’s leading manufacturers. Through the widespread use of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence for image analysis or LIDAR, navigation will be increasingly autonomous and with less need for a crew.
These breakthroughs will not be possible without real-time analysis of the parameters reported by the countless internet-connected sensors to be installed. The Internet of Things (IoT, per its English acronym) will allow preventive maintenance to be planned and temperature and air quality to be tracked in real time in all containers transported. The study of all this Big Data generated will improve productivity in maintenance tasks and will extend the service life of infrastructure and machinery.
However, these changes that are already becoming a reality imply big challenges for the maritime transport sector. Connectivity and automation assume that the potential losses associated with a possible cyberattack increase exponentially. No wonder the maritime sector is one of the cybersecurity sector’s principal growth niches in the coming years.
This automatization and digitalization requires large investments in systems, infrastructure, machinery… In a sector that is in and of itself already very capital-intensive, its major players will be the ones who can most easily lead the change. A mergers and acquisitions scenario can therefore be forecast in the medium term.
Current legislation also needs to adapt to this new environment, which is not a trivial matter. Lawmakers usually can’t keep up with technological advances. A good example of this is the use of drones for last mile delivery. At this time, it does not seem certain that the legislative framework is going to be ready when autonomous ships arrive in 2-3 years. In addition, this includes the necessary adaptation of the professional profiles that shipping companies and logistics operators have. The current situation, with a considerable burden of unskilled labor, should change over to an increasing number of system engineers and digitalization experts. Management of these changes will need to be carried out by professionals with interdisciplinary skills.
The human factor and empathy with customers, providers, partners or internal personnel will be key to emerge as winners of this race to digitalization, which is already underway.