Global Shipping Needs Geospatial Technology

Response to Covid-19 and its ripple effects on trade may be accelerating maritime industries’ adoption of geospatial technology

Where global shipping is concerned, the Covid-19 pandemic is changing everything from navigation pathways, to crew and ship safety, to demand for commodities, and forcing the shipping industry to adapt, in part through new uses of geospatial technology.

From the ancient wooden vessels of the Phoenicians to container ships loaded with merchandise from China, maritime shipping is an industry as old as trade itself. Nautical trade helped build the globalized world, and today, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) estimates that 50,000 merchant vessels are responsible for between 80 percent and 90 percent of the world’s trade.

But because of the global pandemic, it is an ancient industry that is being forced to modernize.

Automatic Identification System (AIS) and E-Navigation

To understand these changes, a little background is necessary. One advancement that has already transformed the maritime industry is e-navigation, an international protocol for sharing information among ships and ports. In tandem with transponder-based Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), e-navigation safely directs ships from berth to berth by harmonizing and presenting real-time information to those ashore and aboard. The application of AIS technology resulted in a paradigm shift within the shipping industry, allowing Vessel Traffic Management Services (VTMS) the ability to locate ships around the world through automatic geolocation.

While AIS is now mandated for all vessels of 300 GT (gross tonnage) and above on international voyages, this development was once unimaginable in the industry. As George Guy Thomas, hailed as the father of AIS, explains, “I mean 85 percent of the people that I talked to said it was either technically infeasible or they didn’t understand why it was so important.” Thomas had served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy and believed that the beacons used to track air traffic could be modulated to fit maritime vessels. Today, AIS, together with GPS, has become the primary radio-based mechanism within the maritime sector. As Thomas says, “Satellite navigation is a big help, but [AIS] actually totally changed how the maritime world is operated.”

Maximizing Efficient Maritime Delivery

Today, AIS is helping to counter some of the problems caused by the Covid-19. The pandemic has simultaneously increased the need for goods to reach their destination in a timely fashion while intensifying the difficulties of merchant vessel travel. Chief among the dilemmas the shipping industry now faces is the disruption of supply chain shipping routes. Reduced calls to ports in China (home to seven of the world’s 10 largest ports) as well as countries’ restrictions on incoming shipping have complicated the efficient routing of vessels. As the 10 biggest container lines brace for steep losses in the third quarter, a few days or even hours can be tremendously costly.

As Capt. Jatin Bains, CEO of Space Eyes LLC, puts it, “Ships cost anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000 a day. You can just think about it: a diversion of 20 days, suddenly there’s a half-a-million dollar loss.”

Geospatial technology can provide crucial data and foresight to merchants rerouting their vessels in line with the new restrictions. Since the pandemic has taken hold, GIS-based electronic route optimization has allowed ships to follow new paths and deliver goods in the most economical and efficient way possible by plotting novel waypoints.

The pressing importance of on-time arrival for shipments has helped reinforce the need for real-time telemetry to deliver geodata from the oceans. As David Motorella, director of IntelliEarth Maritime Solutions at L3Harris Technologies, explains, “Global, persistent, real-time [collection] of all that AIS traffic that’s sent out” allows for expedited data transmission across the oceans. “Bringing the data back from the oceans in a real-time manner allows us to put it into fuel conservation algorithms.” Thus, the necessities of the present crisis are already driving the industry to adopt geospatial tools.

Demand for Delivery Brings New Dangers

Additionally, as countries have attempted to stockpile commodities amid the pandemic, demand for many items has fluctuated.

“We see with oil, there’s been all kinds of interesting behaviors,” says Motorella. “OPEC agreed to cut back production in May. We saw almost a mad dash to deliver what they had so they could start bunkering in tankers around the world.”

At the same time as demand for oil dipped, the demand for canned fish and other supplies has risen. With rising demand, illicit trade and misdeclaration of bills of lading or ports of origin will similarly surge. Research in 2011 from the Department of the Interior and Columbia University found that up to one-third of the catch bought and sold in the U.S. was illegally caught. Since then, illegal fishing across the globe has only risen further. Skyrocketing unemployment rates will also incentivize unlawful maritime activity, whether in the form of illicit trade, drug smuggling, or illegal immigration. As the price of oil dips, some countries, such as Iran and Venezuela, will be similarly incentivized to find ways around sanctions to obtain much-needed funds.

Illicit activity necessitates geospatial tracking mechanisms to monitor trade flows. As explained by Gabe Dominocielo, chief strategy officer of Umbra Lab Inc., a high-resolution radar imagery company based in Santa Barbara, California, “The problem is if I want to go steal some fish, I just turn my AIS receiver off, and then go and take it. So then how do you track that?”

RF (radio frequency) mapping is how. “Somebody imaging a wide area with radar, because it can see through clouds, is able to see, oh, there’s these ships with their responders on and these ships with their responders off,” Dominiocio said. “That can be done with RF mapping.” In addition, geospatial tech is used to keep track of piracy and create maps of piracy hotspots to help warn ships delivering goods.

To combat illicit activity, some believe the future involves building artificially intelligent maritime tracking systems to help acquire, sort through, and transmit incoming vessel data.

“[Artificial intelligence] is changing the amount of data that is out there and can be used to help encourage efficiencies for improved decision making, for safety, and for preventing crime,” said Omer Primor of Windward, a maritime analytics and intelligence company based in London. “The amount of data is so massive, and there’s no way to unlock it other than artificial efficient intelligence in all its shapes and forms,” said Primor.

The pandemic’s dangers go beyond crimes on the high seas. In mid-May the ICS estimated that 150,000 seafarers were effectively stranded at sea by travel restrictions, forcing unforeseen extensions of crew members’ tours and increasing not only stress but the risk of mishaps.

GIS-Equipped ‘Smart Ports’

The globalized nature of the maritime industry brings international crew members in contact with many other populations, a clear danger during a pandemic. “In the past, we’ve tracked Ebola, and you can see correlations between fleet movements and people and the spread of viruses,” said Motorella.

As the world reckons with a frighteningly contagious new disease, geospatial technology has helped in allocating resources and conducting health and safety checks of crews. Specifically, GIS-equipped “smart ports” have provided more systematic vetting of sailors’ health. This can be seen at Portugal’s Port of Lisbon, where GIS is used to help limit and check the spread of the Covid-19 by maritime merchant crews.

Challenges Geospatial Technology Can Help Solve

In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic may help illuminate the vast potential of geospatial technology and analysis for maritime trade. On the future of innovation in this space, Dominocielo posited that, “The future is clearly data fusion…doing it with one sensor isn’t efficient. So what you would want to do is use all the sensors together. So let’s say you see a collection of AIS signals, which is an area where there’s a lot of boats together. And you would queue in a HawkEye type RF mapping satellite or SIGINT satellite to see how many AISs there are, and how many radar signals there are.”

The maritime shipping world is in many respects an old-fashioned one where technological adoption is not a high priority, as illustrated by the fact that only 3 percent of major maritime shipping companies have chief technology officers. Protecting the industry’s bottom-line has at times made innovation in this space difficult. As Capt. Bains describes, “While all these business models like ‘Internet of things,’ etc., are all exciting, reality is that you also need folks on the other side to adopt it.”

The question is: will the disruptions of the pandemic help usher in the adoption of geospatial technology, or will this industry stick to the old ways as it moves further into uncharted waters?

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