Mark Wray: UK ports sector must double down on connectivity and decarbonisation

Britain’s maritime sector must waste no time in pushing ahead with its zero emission ambitions and digital transformation says Mark Wray, Connected Places Catapult’s Ecosystem Director for Maritime and Ports.

Cutting carbon from maritime operations is a challenge that must be addressed right now; it is not tomorrow’s problem. Our sector has a long-term target to decarbonise by 2050, but it will take committed and sustained efforts to turn operations around, just like the proverbial oil tanker out at sea.

Almost all of the maritime sector is powered by diesel: from tiny forklift trucks to great big cranes operating in ports, through to all manner of vessels. Everything will need to switch over to some form of cleaner propulsion, but re-engineering the naval architecture and civilian infrastructure is a complex task.

Some vehicles and plant will become fully electric or be powered using hydrogen; or switch to more sustainable types of liquid fuel. Other equipment may even continue to consume diesel, but have their emissions captured.

Few major companies will have all of the solutions available in-house, so they will need to turn to their supply chains. Many smaller, specialist companies are developing new technologies to reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality that will either have been created specifically for maritime applications, or will have proved their worth in other transport nodes.

Several SMEs have been working with Connected Places Catapult to develop and trial new decarbonisation solutions through our Maritime Accelerator programmes. Last year’s cohort included Ecomar Propulsion which builds clean energy motors for boats, Signal Intelligence that uses Internet of Things technology to decarbonise marine operations and ANT Machines which has developed all electric, autonomous tractors for use in ports. We’ve recently announced the companies being supported through this year’s Accelerator and again, supporting the transition to greener, cleaner ports is high on the agenda.

This year's Maritime Accelerator cohort

Digital switch

Ports must also ensure that the switch to digital processes is high up on their agendas. Some locations still make extensive use of pen and paper, with people carrying clipboards. Tablets and apps are starting to be used in the maritime sector, but the transition to modern technology has been far too slow. Those who capture information in a digital format and share data with stakeholders see their operations become more efficient.

For me, the maritime sector needs to fully embrace the switch to 5G connectivity and Internet of Things capabilities to harness data, understand it, and for outcomes to be improved through artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Other opportunities can be realised by building digital twins of your operations. Understanding how a port works in a digital space will help managers maximise performance and understand where improvements can be made.

New activities can be rehearsed virtually to make sure you get it right, and risks can be identified before attempting to make changes in the real world. One of the small companies we are working with – Chrome Angel – has built a virtual model of a distribution warehouse for the Port of Tyne to train people in the best ways to move goods around such a facility.

Since taking on responsibility for the national Digital Twin Hub, Connected Places Catapult has seen a substantive increase in interest from ports and vessel operators who want to enable the creation of digital twins of their assets to improve their productivity. (The Centre for Digital Built Britain announces a new phase for the Digital Twin Hub – Connected Places Catapult)

Encouraging the next generation

But as soon as we start thinking about decarbonisation and digital technologies, we must also address another pressing matter: skills. We need to find ways of attracting the next generation of professionals to work in our ports and shipyards, and ensure that the sector is as attractive as it can be to appeal to younger people interested in working in green, sustainable environments and getting involved in clean fuels and digital systems; and those with the skills we need but working in other sectors to move across, or to upskill our existing workforce.

We need to introduce autonomy to improve operational efficiency – such as using robotics and self-driving equipment and survey vessels – but it won’t happen immediately: there will be a need for people for many years to come.

Together, the sector needs to think harder about what college and university courses will be needed to train the next generation of maritime and port professionals, and to feed back our findings to Government and academia.

There is also a large piece of work to do to understand more about hydrogen: how it can be generated, distributed, stored and used safely for a range of different applications.

Keeping the momentum up

Concerted efforts have been made by Government in recent years to invest in the maritime sector, but let’s keep the momentum going. My appeal is for the sector to be prioritised in the next Spending Review so there is no hiatus in progress or a drop in interest in all things maritime.

Ports and harbours are major economic drivers in the UK. As an island nation, we see 98% of our trade in goods and services and a substantial volume of people arriving and departing via the sea. Any inefficiencies in those movements can be frustrating and costly. The pandemic showed us the negative economic impact of having huge numbers of container ships stuck in big ferry ports, and the Evergreen incident in the Suez Canal also highlighted the impact disruption can have to global shipping.

If we can realise greater port efficiencies, the cost of transferring goods could reduce by 3 to 5%, leading to a direct economic benefit to the UK.

Looking to the future

One prediction I have for the near future is the formation of ‘super ports’ around certain geographic locations, with two or three ports coming together in a local area. This agglomeration will help in the sharing of resources, in order to help develop new technology, and agree on the best sustainable fuels to stock.

Connected Places Catapult has a maritime programme to deliver through until 2028. We want to be an enabler of coastal community hubs, formed around the presence of innovation activity and economic regeneration in what are sometimes deprived areas. There are real opportunities to be had as we start to address the two key challenges of how to decarbonise operations and develop cutting edge technologies.

Connected Places Catapult is also taking a lead in the Freeport Innovation Network which is a hotbed of innovation and can assist in generating economic activity in local areas.

One publicly-funded innovation project is at the Port of Aberdeen. It has just launched a ‘Port Zero’ strategy, funded by the Department for Transport’s Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition which aims to accelerate the net zero transition by eliminating emissions by adapting and supporting the development and introduction of innovative technology and processes.

People are fascinated with what goes on in the maritime environment; and now is the time for the sector to shine.

* Mark Wray will be speaking on day one of London International Shipping Week during a session titled ‘Innovation in Action’ where a Global Maritime Hub is set to be launched by a Government Minister.