For centuries, the shipping industry has been the backbone of international trade. Today, despite all the transformation taking place across the land and air transport networks to enhance the speed and efficiency of trade, the glory of the shipping industry remains undiminished.
There are two key factors behind this phenomenon: one, the oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet, making them indispensable as a mode of transport; and two, ocean freight is significantly cheaper. In recent times, when airplanes were grounded and countries closed their international borders due to the global pandemic, the shipping industry remained open to deliver essentials around the planet.
Now consider the statistics: there are nearly 100,000 international merchant vessels currently in operation transporting around 11 billion tons of goods. Unfortunately, no other form of mass transport is as vulnerable as the ship and their cargo is often of high value, so this makes them a target.
One of the key reasons for this is that many vessels carry large sums of cash to pay for port fees and crew salaries, thereby attracting pirates. We know how crew members are ransomed for cash. In some cases, pirates hijack the entire vessel and sell the cargo for considerable profit. Furthermore, a hijacked vessel can be turned into a source of steady revenue by being operated as a “ghost” vessel, as a United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) report points out. In this instance, the hijacked ship is repainted, renamed, supplied with false documentation, and operated as a commercial vessel. Unsuspecting and time-pressed shippers contract for carriage of their goods on the “ghost” vessel through a normal commercial transaction. Once underway, however, the ship is diverted, the cargo sold and the cycle repeats itself in another port.
Equally concerning is the increasing sophistication of pirates, who scour the web for any loose information about ships, cargo, and locations.
In an ideal world, naval protection should be able to help ships, however, the investment required is enormous. Additionally, the areas that need to be patrolled are too vast: the more than 2.35 million square kilometer expanse of the Atlantic Ocean that borders some 20 West African nations is known as “pirate alley”, where nearly all the world’s kidnappings at sea now take place since the water off Somalia in East Africa has become more secure. These coastal waters often fall under the jurisdiction of the coastguard or maritime police force.
The best solution to assist these organizations and tackle this menace is through technology – and autonomous at that. A machine that can operate itself with minimal human intervention or without the help of the GNSS could be a gamechanger for the maritime industry. At ASPIRE, we’re running the MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge to help facilitate the development of such a solution.