95% of intercontinental trade is by sea. In 2017 the number of vessels in the world merchant fleet had grown to over 50,000 and the number of passenger vessels is expected to have now exceeded 7,000. The tonnage of bulk carriers worldwide has also increased further in recent years. For a long time, the market for software to collect, process and network ship-specific data – including digital vessel fleet-management systems – has been developing to a lesser extent. Until recently the available systems had been isolated solutions for individual sub-sectors of shipping company operations. One reason for this had been the mere lack of technical possibilities to transfer the incoming data.

The industry is undergoing a process of digital transformation

With the increasing technical development and digitalisation, the industry is now undergoing a process of digital transformation that reflects the growing need for better data collection, data processing and data networking. It has been recognized that digitalisation is a key factor for the industry´s future viability and that the industry is therefore urgently dependent on the present process of digital transformation: without suitable systems, the networking of the collected data is a time-consuming and hence expensive challenge. In contrast to this, the digitalized and intelligent networking of data brings significant advantages. Efficiency can be increased and a reliable operation of the vessels can therefore be ensured. If data is automatically collected, centrally provided, combined and analysed, the communication effort is reduced. At the same time, information loss which occurs when data is collected from different programs and from different departments can be avoided, since all persons involved in a process can access the necessary information at any time without further intermediate steps. An intelligent data networking also helps to reduce maintenance costs while at the same time extending the service life of machines [Predictive Maintenance Offshore Wind & Surface Vessels].

The control of procurement and inventory can be optimized as well. The cost savings achieved and the simultaneous performance improvement help to withstand the increasing cost pressure in the industry. Last but not least, suitable systems also help to comply with legal regulations.

Vessels and their systems can already be monitored 24 hours a day and in real time, both by the crew itself and – partly – by the onshore fleet management. New cloud-based systems are able to monitor the vessel using sensor controls – from the ship propulsion to the ship’s bridge – and transmit the data wirelessly. In addition to position and weather data, the collected data also includes information about fuel consumption and efficiency, route, vibrations, ocean currents and vessel movements as well as information about the propulsion system, the on-board power supply and the technical condition of the vessel in general. Taking this large amount of data into consideration, the advantages over manual collection and input are obvious.

Data protection, data security and data sovereignty as legal challenges

With the benefits of digitalisation at hand potential risks and matters, particularly in legal terms, must not be ignored. This begins with questions of data protection. Crew members are concerned about increasing surveillance. In this context, it must be ensured that the rights of the crew and other employees are not violated. In addition, with regard to data security, it must be technically guaranteed that cyber-attacks are prevented; if unauthorized access to the data by third parties occurs anyway, it must further be legally regulated who can be held liable for any security gaps. Finally, similar to other fields where more and more data is being collected due to increasing digitalisation, the question of data sovereignty arises. Especially in view of the fact that smaller shipping companies access the support of fleet-independent centres, it must be clarified who the data „owns“ and by whom and to what extent it may be (further) used. What are the legal limits for private access rights? For example, today’s insurance companies require cargo shipowners to use (and in the event of damage, possibly also the right of access to) route planning software on a case-by-case basis that not only calculates the cheapest route, but also the safest route based on forecast weather and wave data. In addition to corresponding regulations in private law, it is also necessary to consolidate regulations in public law that deal with the access to data by the state. In this context the question is raised to what extent authorities are and will further be entitled to – even without consent of the involved parties – access collected data for example in order to check compliance with environmental protection regulations.

These issues must be sufficiently clarified in order to enable the traditional shipping industry to benefit from the numerous possibilities of digitalisation and to make use of the aforementioned methods for the data collection, processing and networking.