In Depth: Looking at the year 2050 with NISS

Image Courtesy: Rolls-Royce

When celebrating a centennial anniversary, it is tempting not to look back. But the National Institute for Shipping and Shipbuilding (NISS) in the Netherlands resisted and instead took a look at the future of the maritime industry.

The result is called ‘”Blueprint 2050 – The maritime world beyond the horizon’” that was presented in the form of a magazine. Also, it was the subject of a symposium held in Rotterdam, in early-October. This event was visited by 400 maritime professionals.

To make a serious prediction of the future, the NISS and sixty maritime professionals formed working groups that looked at several maritime developments. To give these predictions, some context for possible scenarios of the world in 2050 was sketched. Most of the experts assumed a future with self-supporting continents. World powers, like the United States, China and Europe, are looking inward instead of working together. World trade will decline and because of that, there is less shipping activity between the continents. There are large differences in prosperity around the globe and energy that is generated locally, preferably from locations in the sea.

Ship design

Ships will be designed without the help of humans

The work group that zoomed in on the production process came up with a bold conclusion. In 2050, ships are designed by autonomous computers, without the help of a human designer. Supercomputers are transforming large quantities of structured and unstructured data in information that can be used in the design process. To do that, computers have to learn to think like the human brain. The work group, led by Ubald Nienhuis, a former professor of Ship Production at Delft University of Technology, also thinks that vessels will look completely different in the future. This is because ships are unmanned and there is no need to accommodate people.

Also, vessels are getting multifunctional. “Until now, ships are designed with one mission in mind. But in 2050 it is possible that a cruise ship moors itself and transforms into a trailing suction hopper dredger,” says Nienhuis in the NISS-magazine.

In addition, ships will repair themselves with the help of intelligent materials that self-indicate when in need of replacement.

The work group thinks that in the beginning humans need to feed the computers with instructions, like what kind of vessel it has to design. But these decisions will eventually be made by computers connected by the semantic web, an online framework that allows data to be shared and reused.

Ship yards

According to Nienhuis and his team, ship yards of the future will also function without the help of humans. This a gradual process, but it is a process that is already in motion. Nienhuis says welding and laser cutting robots are already integrated in the production process. Additionally, 3D printing is rapidly developing.

In the future, robots will pull cables, isolate vessels and so on. Moreover, there will be new kinds of inspection robots and the logistic process on a shipyard will be automated. “This process will gradually take over all the tasks of the employees and at the end, there will be an unmanned shipyard.” Although Nienhuis does not think we will speak of a shipyard by that time, “all kind of big structures will be built at those places, not only vessels.” 

Unmanned vessels

Another development that will shape the future of the maritime industry are unmanned ships. Will a fleet of ships be sailed from onshore control centers in 2050? Robert Hekkenberg, Director of Studies BSc Marine Technology at Delft University of Technology, and his group of experts looked into this subject. What are the advantages of unmanned ships? Hekkenberg thinks that it will reduce costs, although this might be less than expected. In the NISS-magazine, he states that oil tankers operate with a small crew, so personnel wages are a fraction of the operating costs.

Another incentive could be that unmanned ships are safer because the human factor is in many cases the cause of accidents. Researchers are already looking into the possibility of a mothership operated by humans, followed by multiple unmanned vessels.

The APM container terminal, located at the Maasvlakte II in Rotterdam, is an example how fast things can go. Crane drivers work from offices away from the cranes and also logistic processes are automated.

Furthermore, other subjects were discussed, like the return of the sailing ship for transporting cargo and the creation of cities in the sea. 50 years, it seems quite short for some of these developments. But remember that half a century ago the construction of the Queen Elizabeth 2 started, the last big transatlantic passenger ship…

More information:

This article was previously published in Maritime Holland edition #7– 2016

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