As the digital transformation of the shipping industry is no more a theory, but a reality, it is important to see how new technologies and digital systems have helped in reducing the number and the severity of shipping accidents, as well as the post-incident investigation processes.

“The optimisation of transport operations has been shown to lead to a decline in accidents at ports and at sea, reduce pollution and emissions and generally help minimise negative externalities and streamline the transport of international trade,” noted United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in a report published in June 2019, when the digitalisation of shipping was still in its infancy.

How has the situation been shaped now that the shipping industry has made important steps towards its digital transformation?

From the side of data, the German multinational financial services company, Allianz has reported that 2,815 shipping incidents occurred in 2019, which represents an increase of 5% year-on-year, with machinery damage being the most usual cause.

However, the shipping sector saw the number of reported total shipping losses of over 100GT decline again during 2019 to 41, which is the lowest total this century and a close to 70% fall over 10 years, according to Allianz’s Safety and Shipping Review 2020, an annual review of trends and developments in shipping losses and safety. Additionally, shipping losses declined by almost a quarter year-on-year from 53 in 2018.

Meanwhile, cargo vessels (15) accounted for more than a third of all total losses during 2019 with the majority occurring in South East Asian waters.

“Improved ship design and technology, stepped-up regulation and risk management advances such as more robust safety management systems and procedures on vessels are some of the factors behind the long-term improvement in losses,” commented Allianz.

Although large shipping losses declined by more than 40% in 2018 and by over 20% in 2019 to their lowest level this century, foundering of cargo ships, container ship fires and incidents involving ro-ro vessels continue to be among the leading causes of loss activity.

The shipping fires, which represent a substantial percentage of the total marine accidents, have constituted a major challenge for the container shipping companies in the last years, with the burning X-Press Pearl, which finally sunk out off Sri Lanka waters, being the latest severe case of such an accident.

Although there are some digital solutions, such as screening and monitoring systems to check and control containers condition, temperature and humidity in the atmosphere, it is still very difficult for the industry to find a way in order to really mitigate fire breakouts in ships.

“Container ship fires continue to be an issue,” pointed out Allianz, which argued that the fact that the vessels become increasingly larger (the capacity has increased by 1,500% in the last 50 years) can impact fire prevention and salvage in the event of an incident.

The technology could play a role in reducing the risk of fire on board vessels, including temperature monitoring of cargo, water spray and CO2 fire suppression in cargo holds, more active firefighting on deck, including water curtains, water screens and fixed water monitors and even integrating fire suppression systems in drones, according to the company.

“Development of drone technology could also play a key role in the containment and control of offshore vessel fires in future, with projects involving a fire suppression system that can be integrated within a drone already in the offing,” said Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.

Furthermore, a National Cargo Bureau (NCB) study found the majority of containers it inspected had issues with mis-declared or improperly stowed cargo. Of the 500 containers inspected, more than half failed with one or more deficiencies, including the way cargo was secured, labelled or declared, according to the study.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the whole supply chain, noted Allianz, while a big number of containers is being loaded that is not properly documented and appropriately stowed, increasing the threat of fires and risking lives.

Allianz said that several major container ship operators are taking action to face the issue, including more stringent cargo verification and inspections and higher penalties and fines for infringements.

Technology and machine learning are also increasingly being deployed to help better review cargo manifests and identify issues, according to Allianz’s report.

“This is a problem that will only get worse if we don’t act. Container vessels are getting bigger and the range of goods being transported continues to grow. Dangerous goods like chemicals and batteries are increasingly shipped in containers, and these pose a serious fire risk if they are mis-declared and wrongly stowed,” commented Kinsey.

As human error is one of the main reasons for a big number of shipping accidents throughout the ages, it comes as no surprise that the way in which vessels and crew are interacting with technology has become a significant factor in collisions and groundings in the last years.

According to the Allianz report, the US Navy said it was to remove touch screens and place manual controls in 2020 after an investigation into an incident involving one of its vessels in 2017 which resulted in fatalities.

“When used appropriately, technology can improve shipping safety and better training and utilization of data can result in more successful integration,” said Allianz. “In particular, the industry needs to start learning from successful journeys, not just accidents. Such insights can be used to develop new technology, inform training and improve crew and safety culture.”

Increased use of industrial control systems (ICS) to monitor and maintain engines could lead to a significant reduction in machinery breakdown incidents in the future, according to the report.

Allianz believes that over the years, the shipping industry has moved from time-based maintenance to condition-based maintenance, and with digitalisation, it will shift towards predictive or preventative maintenance.

In time, the move to preventative maintenance could improve the reliability of engines and
ultimately improve safety.

At present, human error is still a big factor in machinery breakdown losses. Even a well-trained crew can make mistakes which can result in damage, “so real-time onshore monitoring, by owners in consultation with manufacturers, and preventative maintenance could reduce such incidences,” noted Allianz.

For Peregrine Storrs-Fox, Risk Management Director at TT Club, a London-based insurance company, it is still unclear if digitalisation and new technologies have actually prevented shipping incidents.

“It’s always difficult to tell [if digitalisation has helped in reducing the number of shipping incidents] because the number of incidents gets up and down,” told Peregrine Storrs-Fox to Container News.

However, he is sure that they have increased the level of knowledge, gathering Information Technology (IT) information related to an incident, which are useful for the investigation process.

Vessel navigational condition has been more visible and help better ship/shore communication and micro-management, according to the Singaporean container carrier, Ocean Network Express (ONE).

“Digitalisation in navigational, engine room and communication equipment has enriched Mariner’s operating ease and situational awareness,” told a company’s representative to Container News.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox also believes that digital systems can help significantly in the investigation of accidents with accurate information related to cargo bookings, vessel condition, container position, etc.

The representative from ONE seems to agree, saying that technology tools have made more information and analysis available from the database of marine incidents and have supported quality inspections for counter-measure.

On this point, ONE’s spokesperson has highlighted that the industry is still relying on the knowledge and experience of marine experts regarding the investigation of an accident, while an incident database would assist the process with more information.

“Automatic identification system (AIS) data coverage all around the world has increased visibilities for accidents and investigations,” it pointed out.

Additionally, to highlight the importance of digital tools in accidents investigations, the container line’s representative emphasised that “researches highly dependent on digital capabilities and data compilation are now undertaken by various institutes around the world to investigate underlying technical issues behind accidents to address for improvements.”

As the digitalisation of the shipping industry is an ongoing process that never stops, it is interesting to see how technology is expected to further enhance vessel and cargo safety in the “near future”.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) application for stowage planning and special cargo, including dangerous cargo, handling for safe cargo transportation will be a development which will strengthen the digital shield against the risk of shipping accidents, according to the spokesperson from ONE.

Moreover, bad weather was reported as a factor in one in five losses, according to Allianz’s report. Therefore, improvement of accuracy on marine weather forecasting, weather routing and vessel’s motion monitoring seems like a necessary update towards a safer shipping industry.

Source : Container-News