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The growing trend

By Alessander Lopes Pinto

Since the world maritime sector began to discuss, a few years ago, the plausibility of autonomous ships for the transport of goods by waterway, a disruptive transformation has shaken maritime and port activities at a global level. We are not far from the time when ships and ports can be operated without the human element. Automation is now at the center of the competition arena. 

The maritime world quickly understood how the implementation of technological innovations and artificial intelligence could accelerate the self-management of navigation and ports from the monitoring of equipment integrity and automation of mechanical and electrical systems, reducing the need for human interference and increasing the efficiency of operations. 

With an eye on the future, companies began to invest enormous resources in the development of technological innovations and stimulated the use of artificial intelligence concepts in systems on board ships, including radar sensors, cameras and satellite guidance, as well as security systems.  

Projects previously only imaginable in science fiction have now become reality. The ship Yara Bierkeland, known beyond the maritime industry for combining technology and energy efficiency, was a pioneer among autonomous ship projects, although it did not completely exclude the presence of a human team on board. Developed by the Norwegian company Yara International, it made its first test voyage in November 2021. 

Then it was Mikage’s turn, from the Japanese company Mitsui Lines, to cross the seas. The first fully autonomous ship to dock by herself, she made use of drones, at the end of the voyage, to release cables for the port workers. The transformation has just begun. Japan already has its second automatic ship, named Suzaku. The vessel made its first test voyage in February 2022. 

Brazil has been following this growing trend with due attention and, since 2020, has a technological platform – Brazilian Cluster of Artificial Intelligence for Ships – for the development of artificial intelligence for the maritime sector. The initiative brings together representatives from the government, academia, maritime companies and industrial leaders and seeks to promote projects and technological solutions, attract investments, bring together research centers that already work in the area and point out the new Brazilian bets for maritime transport and port activities to the national and international market. 

It is worth noting that technological innovation centers have been implemented in the main Brazilian port cities, with emphasis on the computerization and digitalization of port procedures related to the arrival of ships, their loading, unloading and clearance by the various competent authorities. Not least, the Brazilian program “Porto Sem Papel” (Paperless Port), in force for almost ten years, has brought efficiency to port operations, reducing bureaucracy and creating more agility and economy for operations. 

Note, however, that there are sensitive points to be considered at the current moment of this transformation. It should be noted that the expected efficiency for maritime transport will only be achieved with the integration of the entire logistics chain involved in the shipment of goods, from the collection at factories, storage, dispatch, transport, unloading and delivery to the final recipient. 

In this regard, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia lights up a red light for the intended change. In addition to all the humanitarian tragedy and consequent escalation of misery and delay on a global level, the integrity of ports, ships and communications infrastructure, not restricted to countries involved in the armed conflict, is a real risk. Likewise, the impacts suffered from cybernetic attacks, intensified during the war, cannot be ignored. Identifying and preventing threats to communication network operations, including the maritime and port sector, have required greater attention from cybersecurity development centers. 

The industry and the international maritime community must be prepared to deal effectively with any attack and protect the continuity and security of ports and ships. To this end, in the near future, a considerable effort must be made to carry out two tasks that today seem irreconcilable: the first is to seek a solution to the end of the war and its devastation; the second, closely associated with the first, is to advance the entrepreneurial agenda of a modern, efficient, intelligent and technological navigation.

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