The oceans of the world are worth $24 trillion, according to a WWF report. New technologies are fast making inroads into the shipping space. Industrial fishing and factory farming are causing a significant shift in the oceans. Suburbs are being built in close proximity of marine habitats. Seabed mining is gnawing at the bottom of oceans and the world is headed towards a marine industrial revolution, thanks to the mushrooming of new industries. The tech industry has the capacity to innovate and resolve global problems, but the million dollar question is whether it can save the oceans for posterity.
Paper charts were the mainstay of navigation at sea for thousands of years. But things are changing for good. Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) has become an indispensable technology in new ships since 2012. Internet and satellite technology have become a vital part of modern shipping, with reports suggesting that around 1 million satellite units and more than 160 satellite transponders will be in service by 2023.
The steel containers were invented in the 1950s and revolutionized the field of cargo shipping for half a century. But the expenses involved in shipping containers back are a major drawback. Carbon fibers could be the future of containers as they are easier to use and transport from place to place.
Automated ships, which are the equivalent of driver-less cars, are likely to revolutionize shipping in the next decade. Rolls-Royce has already invested in the creation of automated ships and the future is indeed pregnant with many such possibilities. There will also come a time when autonomous surface and underwater vessels will become commonplace in deep ocean mining as well as oil and gas operations. Harbor tug boats are likely to become one of the first vessel classes to become autonomous, going by current indications. As ships become large, towing companies are building more powerful and agile tug boats. Polaris Marine is one such Sydney-based towing and barge hiring company, with 30 years experience in the marine industry and set to go places.
Amazon is building graphical processing units using deep learning and Microsoft is using field programmable gate arrays. These technologies would be used in the new generation of operations hubs being developed by the likes of ABB and Rolls-Royce.
Computers and automation systems are becoming increasingly intelligent with each passing day. Artificial intelligence will enable vessel computers to understand the maritime environment and be prepared for all eventualities at sea.
Virtual Reality (VR) has diverse applications in ship design and engineering, passenger entertainment and emergency preparedness, offshore vessels and commercial shipping. Augmented Reality (AR) would have maritime applications in areas such as ship bridges and remote operating centres.
Drones would provide information to surveyors from difficult-to-reach areas on ships and offshore structures. Drones would also be used for testing ship emissions, delivering parcels to ships near coastlines and navigating in ice conditions.
Metals will remain the dominant force for ship structures, but micro-scale and nano-scale materials will come into their own. Magnesium and calcium nano-particles will strengthen welds and an anti-corrosion coating will protect the vessels. High-strength steel and carbon-fibre composites will contribute to better sustainability and fuel economy.
New types of robots are set to be used in commercial shipping, including a learning robot, a practical robot and a mini-robot for inspecting harsh environments. The field of ocean robotics is primed to borrow extensively from the world’s best engineering firm i.e. Mother Nature; Robo-tuna cruising the ocean on surveillance missions and sea snake-inspired marine robots inspecting pipes on offshore oil rigs are under development. Humanoid robots will soon replace human divers in undertaking dangerous ocean research and engineering tasks, and handling archaeological artifacts.
A new generation of advanced sensors will collect data and relay it in real time, thereby allowing the ship owners to monitor the maintenance cycles of vessels and eliminating the need for regular visits to remote locations.
The growth in communications from WiFi to 5G will propel the birth of a ‘connected’ ship that will allow operators to access live audio, and HD and 3D video from on-board recording devices.
Deep sea mining
The sea is flush with rare metals such as gold and platinum. Many of these marine mineral resources have, however, been out of reach for centuries. Going ahead, waterproof machines will travel to the deepest areas of the sea to mine such metals.
Medicines from the seas
The oceans hold vast reserves of medications for the treatment of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. The search for marine-derived pharmaceuticals is gaining steam, with the European Union-funded consortium called PharmaSea recently beginning the work of collecting and screening biological samples with the use of deep-sea sampling equipment, genome scanning and data-mining.
The future of the human race is inextricably linked to that of oceans. Technological innovation has played a pivotal role in cleaning up polluting industries, promoting sustainable economic growth and healthy ecosystems on land. It is high time for ocean technology to replicate the same success under the sea. Advances in marine technologies will make it possible to take more from the ocean and damage them to a lesser extent.