4 Maritime Technologies Changing the Industry

November 19, 2013

77% of global trade is between countries with no common border – and the most economical way to move physical goods is over the oceans. Innovative maritime technologies impact the global economy in incredible ways, by making trade less expensive, reducing emissions, and tightening connections between nations. Today, we spotlight five new maritime technologies which could transform the way we travel the world’s oceans.

The Green Godzilla of Container Shipping

Credit: MaerskEfficiency in maritime transport is a function of size – the larger your vessel, the lower the percentage of your hull is in contact with the water, and the less energy you spend overcoming friction. Maersk already operates the world’s largest shipping vessel – the Emma Maersk – but just placed an order for ten even larger, more efficient green Godzillas. Engineers, meet the Triple E (video link).

The Triple E can carry 2,500 more TEU than the Emma Maersk – that’s 2,500 twenty-foot long, standard cargo containers – for a maximum load of 18,270 containers. A design focus on fuel efficiency and reduced emissions puts the Triple E’s per-container costs 20% lower than ever the Emma Maersk, already noted as one of the greenest and cheapest shipping solutions on the water.

The only way to further reduce the costs and environmental impacts of global shipping would be to transition away from heavy fuel oil altogether… and Wärtsilä is laying the groundwork for that, right now.

Engine Efficiency Goes Big

Natural gas engines aren’t anything new – natural gas fleet vehicles on land, and medium-sized, four-stroke maritime engines (either gas or dual-fuel) are increasingly popular options. For merchant shipping, however, the largest vessels are restricted to two-stroke diesel engines. While incredibly efficient, there is a practical limit to how clean and inexpensive a massive diesel workhorse like the RT-FLEX96C can be.

Credit: WartsilaThis November, however, Wärtsilä engineers completed full-scale trials of its RT-FLEX50DF two-stroke engines. Leveraging mature technologies in low-pressure gas systems with their design and maritime engineering resources, Wärtsilä is bringing the first dual fuel engines to market with the raw power to serve in large-scale merchant shipping roles.

These engines can operate on gas at low speeds and with ludicrous efficiency – in trials, the engines ran on pilot fuel only 1% of the time. This insulates ship owners from price fluctuations in the oil market, for one, while reducing emissions (IMO Tier III compliant in gas mode, Tier II on diesel) and capital expenditures (by as much as 20%).

Wärtsilä forecasts as much as 25% of their own orders will be gas or dual fuel by the close of the decade, which will likely reflect broader trends in maritime technologies. This means less expensive shipping, lower prices on goods, reduced reliance on oil, and lower emissions – in a sector controlling an estimated 45% of global GDP. That’s transformative by any measure.

Autonomous Ocean Mapping

In the 19th century, pilots could make their careers on knowledge of the coastal sea floor and inland waterways. Hidden hazards to navigation, construction, and exploitation could destroy even the soundest vessels, and they were nearly impossible to detect until they’d developed into serious problems.

If only there was an autonomous mapping solution for navigable waterways… With little added cost, conditions could be monitored constantly, allowing governments and corporations to plan more efficient shipping lanes, maintain critical waterways, and detect developing hazards in their infancy.

Credit: SURVICE EngineeringSURVICE Engineering’s ARGUS – Autonomous Remote Global Underwater Surveillance – is something of a Google Maps for the sea. Forty vessels already participate in the program, which requires little more than mounting an ARGUS unit on their hull, switching it on, and ignoring it. In exchange, vessel owners receive constantly updated nautical maps, even in areas where no active survey has taken place since the mid-20th century, while helping crowdsource better data for governments and other agencies to plan maritime projects.

The ARGUS feeds depth, water quality, temperature, and weather information to SURVICE’s central servers, turning the merchant fleet into a distributed sensor network. Cheap, constantly refreshed data from the ARGUS network would be of inestimable benefit to oceanography, shipping, and coastal maintenance, wherever our ships travel.

The Coming Submersible Revolution

Humans have traveled the surface of the ocean for millennia, but exploration and exploitation of the depths is much more of a technical challenge. While we increasingly look to the sea for energy sources, telecommunications routes, and scientific knowledge, deep water submersible technology remains prohibitively expensive.

The OceanGate Cyclops manned submersible could very well change all of that.

Credit: OceanGateUnder contract with Boeing, and in cooperation with the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington, OceanGate has combined developments in carbon fiber materials technology with Boeing’s proprietary manufacturing processes to create a light, affordable deep water submersible. The Cyclops carries a five-person crew to depths as low as 3km, with a range increase to 6km planned in 2016.

Stock, the Cyclops features two five-axis manipulators, a 180-degree glass cockpit dome (the largest of its kind), 2D and 3D sonar, and full-color cameras. Engineers can request custom tool packages, such as additional manipulators, cable tools, or laser scaling equipment, as their tasks require.

What makes the Cyclops possible – and relatively affordable – is a Boeing technique for void-free carbon fiber manufacturing. Assembling individual carbon fibers into strips of less than 3cm each, the entire 17cm-thick hull has no gaps or voids to fail under pressure. With the entire hull reacting to pressure as a unit, unprecedented strength is achieved at a fraction of previous costs.

As more engineering firms, universities, and governments gain access to deep sea, manned submersible technology, the depths of the ocean will open for us as never before. Maintenance and construction of underwater infrastructure will be far easier, as will organizing scientific and survey missions.