Data dry spell

The maritime industry has plenty of data, but few owners use it to improve operations

Gregory Trauthwein
21 November 2016

4 min read

With nearly 91,000 vessels, the global maritime industry crosses social, economic and geographic frontiers, but it has not yet crossed the data boundary by embracing big data. With connectivity options and speeds improving, ships are beginning to join a data revolution that promises efficiency and cost savings. However, the question remains: what will be the trigger to push the majority of maritime into the digital age?

Frank Coles, CEO of Transas, a provider of specialty IT systems for the shipping industry, neatly summarizes the impact of big data on the global maritime industry: “Big data is all of the data that we are now collecting off of a ship,” Coles said. “Smart data is the ability to sift through that data and get to a place where we can use it in a clever way for analytics.”

It’s an important distinction, especially in an industry widely considered to be conservative in its adoption of new technologies and even further behind in analyzing data to make ship operations more efficient and cost-effective. Thought leaders like Coles intend to change that.

“They are still issuing paper ‘noon’ reports,” Coles said, referring to the tradition of ships reporting to their home offices at noon each day. “The master (ship’s captain) is still bogged down in a plethora of paperwork which should be automated. We need to change attitudes. I think when the next generation (of mariners) gets more involved in owning ships, that will be the drive for change because they come from a different mindset.”

Why change? Because it’s good for the business, proponents say.

“We are at an inflection point in our industry where data analytics tools are available to support predictive assessments leading effective decisions.”


“Shipping is very conservative, emotionally driven, with people operating as they always have,” said Jonathan Dowsett, senior fleet performance manager for Eagle Bulk Shipping. “Now you have to embrace this new technology and this new approach, which suggests that perhaps you shouldn’t simply conduct your operations as you always have.”

Corporate consolidation, an increasingly connected logistics chain and digital natives becoming shipowners are among the trends simultaneously driving shipowners and operators to adopt new solutions. Also helping is steadily rising connectivity speed from VSATs. According to a study by DNV GL, the maximum speed to and from ships was approximately 10 Gbps in 2015. This is expected to dramatically increase to over 200 Gbps by 2025.

Cruise shipping, courtesy of its hospitality industry roots, and container shipping, due to its role in the highly automated global logistics chain, are the first two maritime segments to aggressively harness big data solutions, primarily due to these outside pressures. But cumulatively, the container ship and cruise ship fleets total less than 12% of the 91,000-ship world fleet, meaning much work remains.

Why now? Because the capability has finally arrived, as Howard Fireman, senior vice president and chief technology officer of American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), a leader in ship classification, attests.

“The maritime community’s dependence on real-time access, monitoring and analytics continues to grow,” said Fireman. “We live in a data-centric world. Data drives us, and more important is how we use and interpret the data to drive future possibilities. We are at an inflection point in our industry where data analytics tools are available to support predictive assessments leading effective decisions.”


It could be argued that the bulk carrier sector – the “pickup trucks” of the sea; utilitarian, rugged and generally less expensive with fewer high-tech amenities – would be the last niche to invest in advanced data solutions.

Think again.

“It is a bad time for bulk carriers and bulk operators, so you need to differentiate yourself. A critical way to do thisis to embrace business intelligence.”


For nearly a decade, the bulk carrier sector has been in a historic slump – a simple supply-and-demand quandary of too many ships chasing too little cargo – due to a slowing world economy and an influx of thousands of new, larger ships. As a result, the benchmark Baltic Dry Index dropped from 4661 points in 2009 to 831 in October 2016.

To survive the slump, US-based Eagle Bulk Shipping, the world’s third-largest owner of Supramax bulk carriers – ships ranging in size from 50,000 to 60,000 dwt – has embraced big data and is investing in solutions to run advanced analytics.

“It is a bad time for bulk carriers and bulk operators, so you need to differentiate yourself. A critical way to do this is to embrace business intelligence,” Dowsett said. His job is to collect all kinds of data and to turn that data into intelligence, insights that can be used to help make better, faster business decisions.


“We are optimizing everything, from routing to the type of antifouling paint we put on the hull to when we dry-dock our ships,” Dowsett said. “If we can collect relevant data, we can try to model the decision space and use data to reach a decision rather than rely on a feeling or convention that may no longer be valid in a rapidly evolving industry with fast-changing markets.”

Eagle Bulk Shipping owns and operates 40 Supramax-class bulk carriers, with both commercial and technical management handled in-house. Dowsett is a figurative and literal face of the new generation in shipping. He graduated from Webb Institute with a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering and from the University of Cambridge with a master’s degree in engineering for sustainable development. After working for the Maersk Group in Copenhagen for several years, Dowsett joined Eagle Bulk Shipping in January 2016.

“Onboard our ships, we are collecting information on everything from ship speed to weather to fuel consumption,” Dowsett said. “We can even look at more detailed things like specific pressures in specific cylinders on the main engine. All this data is sent shoreside regularly, where we are combining it with other data sets, like hindcast weather data, and pulling it through many different models … models for optimal fuel consumption at a specific speed, draft, and weather conditions, for example.”

As a result of its computerized data crunching, Eagle Bulk Shipping is making decisions in minutes rather than weeks, providing near-instantaneous feedback and collaboration between ship and shore to help captains make operational decisions quickly and shave incremental costs from each voyage.


Instead of having the onboard crew transmit data daily, Eagle’s data arrives multiple times each second.

“We’re going to be able to make corrective actions in real time,” Dowsett said. “Instead of having a ship operating at a suboptimal speed or a suboptimal trim for a week, it’ll be (corrected in) two minutes.”

Collecting more and better data is challenge one; processing and using that data efficiently is the holy grail.

“You are going to have so much data coming in and so many models to pull it apart that we’re going to have insights into operational and technical inefficiencies that we don’t even know about today,” Dowsett said. “All of this information moving in real time between ship andshore is also going to open up exciting predictive capabilities so that continuous improvement will move from being reactive to proactive.”

He concludes: “I think the people and the companies that are not willing to adopt this approach run the risk of falling far behind and being left by the wayside.”

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