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Big Data for Big Ships

Under Maritime 4.0, big data will check in on large ships within commercial shipping.

While Industry 4.0 continues to adopt specific forms for process automation, the first cyber-physical systems and cloud-based network structures, which will ultimately optimize maritime operations, still have a long way to go before they are ready for sea travel. It is primarily German maritime equipment suppliers that are convinced Maritime 4.0 will enable them to achieve enormous gains in commercial shipping efficiency. Is this merely a rosy outlook on the part of German industry? After all, they lead the global list of suppliers according to VDMA statistics. What does big data actually offer the maritime sector, and what new challenges are linked to these massive data sets?

Automation Takes Hold in Shipping:

  • Energy-efficient operation by linking sub-systems
  • Reading ship data and control intervention thanks to remote access from shore
  • Cost Reductions due to Unmanned Shipping
  • Evaluation of weather data and adjusting route to save fuel
  • The advantages of cost reduction, environmental protection and increased efficiency are countered by a high risk of data abuse and cybercriminality.

It is said that you are in God's hands when you are on the high seas and in court. This adage has lost nothing of its significance in the 21st century. There is always an amount of uncertainty in the courtroom as to how the legal situation will be resolved, and similar uncertainties prevail on the high seas. Even when ships are following defined routes, they remain exposed to the forces of nature, the reliability of the technology or even pirates. While some discuss redundancies and reliability, others contemplate autonomous ships that could alleviate the risk of pirates, since pirates are more interested in the ransom they can extort for hostages than they are in the cargo itself. Will driverless transport systems, which are already used for logistics on land, change the image of the global seas?

Sector experts are convinced of the enormous potential of big data.

Remote-controlled cargo ships on international waters are currently only dreams; however, they are approaching reality as automation is increasingly incorporated into ship designs and enables that which was inconceivable a few years ago. Examples include the networking of subsystems, which allows the linking of systems for finer tuning and significantly more efficiency; or remote access from land to read ship data or engage in the ship's operation to control specific functions. Whether or not people remain on board, sector experts like Hauke Schlegel, director of the VDMA “Marine Equipment and Systems” department, are convinced that, “an unimaginable potential is concealed” in big data. The maritime sector, with the German maritime economy as the leading global supplier, stands to profit from big data – a fact that pleases Schlegel immensely.


Today, large-format monitors, rather than the view from the bridge, direct commercial and passenger ships.

While it appears that in the foreseeable future China, Japan and Korea will close shipyards due to overcapacity, the German mechanical engineers and system designers are traveling in calmer waters. And while their future may not be rosy, it appears to be stable. In 2016, sales are expected to exceed 12 billion euros. And now the digital revolution offers further opportunity? What can ships and shipping actually get from this new technology? Let us examine efficiency, environmental protection and security in the shipping industry more closely.

Cost Reductions due to Unmanned Shipping

In general, cargo services suffer daily from high and ever-increasing cost pressures. The reason for this is simple: there is too much available shipping tonnage underway on the oceans – a result of speculation during the boom years between 2004 and 2009. Overcapacity and ongoing price erosion are the end result. Transport services are therefore attempting to retain their economic viability by reducing costs. And anywhere cost reductions are discussed, labor costs are always under consideration – even for shipping companies. For them, it specifically means a choice between quantity or quality. Companies either reduce the crew numbers on board, or the rely on a crew with lower electro-technical qualifications and correspondingly lower rates of pay.


From Oslo to Frederikshavn: in the narrow fjords of Norway, land-to-ship communication remains simple.

Both scenarios can be realized by implementing automation. Automated systems are capable of taking over many long-term tasks that were previously performed by humans. They also allow for remote functionality, which enable land-based experts to read ship's data in order to oversee maintenance people at sea. If the crew numbers on board fell to zero, there would be profitable benefit: small subsystems, such as, wastewater treatment systems, climate control and desalinization plants, would be eliminated if a ship were autonomously guided. Transport services could save approximately 10 % in fuel costs alone if they did not have to offer the amenities required to feed, house and entertain a crew.

Allocating Costs According to Their Sources

With or without a crew: On a ship, there are many applications that could be operated more efficiently, aside from crew amenities. Measuring, evaluating, formulating remedies – Maritime 4.0 holds tremendous promise for these specific areas. Consider building management for a moment: By employing data recording and networking, consumption and costs can be determined and optimized down to the individual room level. Comparable measurements do not occur on container ships. However, different containers contribute to different levels of transportation costs. This is due to the fact that, despite the standardized dimensions of a container, all cargo is not the same, which is abundantly clear when one considers “reefers.”


Everything is tightly linked. The chart illustrates how important big data and close-knit networks are for modern shipping operations.

Reefer is the term used for refrigerated containers, which must either be cooled using the ship-side cargo cooling system or have their own cooling systems. These, in turn, draw energy from the onboard network. In both cases, the cooling directly impacts fuel consumption on the ship, because the generators have to provide electrical energy and the main engine consequently demands more output. It is obvious that refrigerated containers are responsible for higher shipping costs compared to other containers. In daily practice, however, infrastructure costs are uniformly distributed among all containers loaded on a ship. If integrative network technology could determine how high the energy demands of a reefer actually are, then the shipping costs could be allocated according to the source and individually calculated. Different cargo tariffs could be defined for different routes, because travel in the vicinity of the equator requires more electricity for cooling than cooler regions. Technologically, such tasks could be solved without a problem by currently available technology. WAGO's PFC200 Controller offers, for example, storage potential for monitoring data outside of the cloud in parallel to its own processor performance. Also, this monitoring is already required in order to document the uninterrupted cooling chain and thus the operational safety of a reefer.

Route Planning Instead of Full Steam across the Ocean

Another example of the advantages that result from closer data networking can be measured in fuel consumption. If routes are plotted around low-pressure zones, for example, fuel is saved. Consequently, it is advantageous to evaluate weather data with more than safety in mind. Additional processing of harbor information follows a similar path. Prof. Holger Watter, Dr.-Ing and president of the Technical University of Flensburg, recently enquired, “What is the use of traveling at full speed to a harbor, if I have to wait for a docking position?” When considering fuel consumption, it is substantially more efficient to adjust the traveling speed so that a cargo or container ship arrives punctually in a harbor that is logistically prepared to handle its freight.


Inconspicuous placement, but a serious outcome: if both buttons are pressed in case of a pirate attack, a comprehensive crisis management program will run in the background.

Experts have estimated the monetary rewards that could result from optimizing fuel consumption and idle times to be so great that the EU has launched the “Sea Traffic Management” project. This initiative seeks to precisely synchronize shipping operations using communication, networking and big data. The basic premise of the project is that ships’ data, which can be coordinated with one another, is provided in the cloud where other ships can access it. This opens the path for safely passing one another along shipping routes, and arriving punctually in harbors in a sequence. The harbor operators would also profit from synchronized shipping. They could better prepare for the arrival of ships, which would thus lead to significantly less logistics space for intermediate storage and less capacity for transporting goods. Semis and trains wouldn't have to remain in long queues waiting for specific ships. Agreements of this type would pay off financially and environmentally. “In spite of this, it is not yet common in shipping,” opines Professor Watter, who clarifies that in this context, it is still more important for ship operators to correctly interpret various scenarios. Watter wants ships' crews, “to be able to correctly read data and determine the correct measures,” by which he means that automation systems need good human-machine interfaces.

Maritime 4.0 Requires Greater IT Security

In this context, ships' bridges have long served as automation control centers where information flows together. This includes navigation, communication and cargo information, as well as administrative data, like registration documents and cargo declarations. With electronic maps and automated identification systems (AIS), it is apparent on the bridge that digitalization is increasing on the high seas. The trend speaks loudly, and the described potentials agree: big data for large ships? It would certainly be worth it!


The AIS provides information about key data from other ships on the route.

However, cost reductions, environmental protection and increased efficiency also have their price: significantly increased demands on cybersecurity. The risk of data abuse and cybercrime increases alongside the digitization, networking and increasing land-to-ship communication. Anyone who talks about Maritime 4.0, has to discuss cybersecurity – and this means much more than securing a ship against cyberattack, it also involves operational safety of the very ship. It is imperative, in order to protect ship, crew and the environment with suitable technologies, that data transmitted between land and sea are reliably encrypted. An example: access points and access times are regulated, or controllers are used that include “IT security by design” and can also function as intermediate storage if the connection between land and sea is severed for any reason.

IT Security: An Ongoing Competition

In view of the serious effects caused by maritime accidents, it is surprising in this context that the current version of the IT Security Act does not include shipping operations among its critical infrastructures, which is a stark contrast to energy and water supply on land. Actually, cybersecurity should be considered a “competition,” which occurs between producers, hackers and operators. In order to flexibly react to new threats, an open operating system is the first choice because open-source products are not dependent on just one manufacturer. Rather, open systems are simultaneously used by many programmers who recognize security gaps more quickly and collaborate on improvements. Therefore, WAGO's PFC family is based on Linux® with real-time expansion, which provides common functions for cybersecurity as defaults, regardless of manufacturer, and offers future possibilities for expansion.

Text: Thorsten Sienk, Norman Südekum and Eva Banholzer | WAGO

Photo: Thorsten Sienk | WAGO

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