Software to improve efficiency and performance of ships

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

12 November 2017


Efficiency and CO2 reduction have become the main focus of regulatory attention for the shipping industry in recent years and although it was governments which decided that shipping and aviation should be excluded from the Paris Agreement, most environmentalist lobby groups have criticised this position.

The criticism is actually quite unfair because shipping has practiced efficiency ever since powered propulsion took over from sails in the 19th century. In more recent times, it was the industry itself that initiated slow-steaming after the 2008 crash. Nevertheless, criticism of the industry from outside including by bodies such as the EU as well as NGOs is increasing.

In part this may be due to first the US and later Australia beginning to question the economics of the worldwide rush to decarbonisation and setting course on new directions. However, shipping is obliged to deal with regulation such as mandatory EEDI and the mandatory but somewhat toothless requirement for Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plans or SEEMPs.

Efficiency in shipping comes from a variety of sources. The design of the vessels and its equipment plays a major part, but it is the human element that can most influence efficiency.

Many navigators pride themselves on being able to keep fuel use to a minimum and there is no doubt that some are far better than others in this regard. Through no fault of their own, many of the navigators today have had less opportunity to gain experience and efficiency has suffered as a consequence.

Navigating a ship efficiently requires attention to cargo and other weight distribution, weather, trim and speed among other things. Every operator has had some of the tools to determine this at their disposal in the way of weather reports, log books and fuel consumption figures. Unfortunately, these only allow for determining the facts after the event and they do not permit for easy comparison of the variables that make every voyage a unique undertaking.

A new breed of software is now established that allows for many of the variables to be measured in real time and allow for instant action to remedy less favourable circumstances. They also allow for comparison across a fleet and the identification of best practices that can be employed on one or several vessels. Those features are obviously more use to an operator that has a fleet of sister or similar vessels operating on more or less identical routes. For an owner with just a handful of mixed vessel types subject to the vagaries of the spot market, their value may be much less.

Some performance monitoring systems are passive using data input manually rather than being fed a constant stream of real time data using sensors and flow meters for measuring fuel consumption and the like. While both should provide an improved performance if used correctly, some will argue that real time systems can be more accurate and effective.

Because of constantly changing factors such as weather, area of operation and cargo loading, over a short period it may not be possible to determine the effectiveness of a system but comparisons between the ship’s operation before and after installation may show differences in the long term. Better result might be obtained when measuring two similar ships operating on the same route simultaneously with one being used to provide baseline or control figures.

On its own performance monitoring software can provide some level of fuel saving but it can also have another function that permits the effect of different factors acting on the ship to be calculated. For example, a ship operating on different occasions with identical cargo, fuel, weather conditions and such like has very different fuel consumption on each occasion. This
could indicate either poor fuel quality or perhaps a high level of hull fouling affecting performance.
Some coatings manufacturers have offered guarantees of performance of their premium products against base levels but require that the ship measures applicable parameters using agreed software for the guarantee to be valid.

Watching the weather

Weather routeing services have been a feature of shipping for some time. Initially they were usually subscribed to by time charterers and used to give instructions to ship masters. They probably arose because the charterers were not satisfied with the records of weather recorded in the ships log and used to dispute fuel consumption claims. Until the satellite era even these services could be disputed because only the ship was physically present when the weather delay was supposed to have occurred and there would be no independent witnesses beyond perhaps a supercargo or another ship in the immediate proximity.

As weather forecasting became more accurate, even owners operating for their own account began to see the wisdom of using a forecasting service that was found to be more accurate than those previously relied upon. However, most forecasts and routes were delivering as communications and it is only recently that specialised software has become widely used.

Applied Weather Technology’s Bon Voyage System (BVS) is among the most well known in this specialist field but is by no means alone. Using an on-board computer, BVS provides the most recent weather and ocean data to the ship by broadband or email communications in a highly compressed format to minimise communication costs. This data is then used to generate colour-enhanced maps and graphics that allow the ship’s master to easily view and interpret potential problem areas in advance.

BVS has an improved optimisation algorithm along with customisable speed down and consumption curves that deliver more accurate estimates of fuel cost and time en-route. Both weather induced constraints and no-go zones can be set to account for the special requirements of each particular voyage.

When making use of a weather routeing service it is important to take into account updates as they happen especially in times of very inclement weather or if the report has been used for passage planning. This was highlighted in the report of the El Faro sinking when an error in the official hurricane report was included in one transmission and the crew did not make use of later corrected information.

ECDIS makers have not been slow in recognising that weather routeing and ENCS make ideal companions and most have developed a weather overlay facility into their systems that makes use of data from one or other of the weather routeing specialists. This feature is useful both at the passage planning stage as areas of forecast inclement weather can be avoided and during voyages when the effect of weather not know at the time of the initial passage plan can be instantly added into the mix of information available.