Reduced emissions and safer maritime traffic: internet of intelligent ships

Lack of coordinating technologies is a problem in shipping. In the future, ships will automatically communicate with each other. Computationally optimised and networked maritime traffic will reduce emissions and enhance safety.

Shafie is skippering a container ship made in China. The sea captain, trained in Manila, is Sama-Bajau by descent. The Sama-Bajau, who live in the archipelagos of the Philippines and Malaysia, are masters in living off the sea and free diving: their underwater hunting trips with a harpoon may last more than 10 minutes, and they do not use any diving cylinders. The Sama-Bajau are born with larger spleens than other people, which helps them in holding their breath. Shafie has a similar urge to get to the bottom of the sea as Finns have to get into sauna. Therefore, he orders the ship to drive at full speed: if they travel fast, they may queue off the port and he will have a few days of free time for diving.

It is great that Shafie has an opportunity to fulfil his desires alongside his work, but from the perspective of emissions and climate change, his way of navigating is far from sensible. Queueing off port for several days is also a tell-tale sign of inefficiency: with a view to reducing emissions and smoothly running logistics, it would be more sensible if ships would automatically communicate with each other and thus travel to the port at an optimised speed. This would dissolve the queues to ports and dramatically reduce emissions from maritime navigation.

Shafie is a typical container ship captain in the sense that one quarter of all the mariners of the world are from the Philippines. The sea captain school in Manila did not teach anything about fuel-saving navigation styles, and, for a Filipino, climate change is not the most pressing issue: poverty, corruption and crime trouble the country. The Finnish maritime industry has means to assist and provide fuel-optimised shipping techniques, but it is not easy to sell such technologies to Shafie or his colleagues. The fuel to Shafie’s ship is paid by the buyer of the journey, not Shafie himself or even the ship’s owner. Interest in any new technologies is minimal.

Lack of technological coordination is a problem in shipping – political will needed

The coordination and communication between ships is also a safety issue. Ships turn slowly, and it is important that encounters in maritime traffic take place at a sufficiently long distance between the vessels. Finnish maritime pilots − people who jump onboard different vessels to assist them to the harbour − have a keen eye and vision to ensure that ships do not cross paths in a too ragged or dangerous spot. There are diverse tools for ensuring coordinated and safe traffic: it may even happen that two Finnish sea captains doing the navigation communicate with each other using WhatsApp, for instance.

Technical solutions promoting communication and coordination are necessary, since communication and thinking errors cause accidents. For example, it may be possible that the sea captain is communicating with a different ship the captain believes she or he is communicating with. This was part of a set of problems, when the Norwegian warship Helge Ingstad collided with a tanker in November 2018.

In the small European bubble, it may be easy to find a common understanding of the instruments needed for promoting communication and coordination, but it requires a global change to have Shafie and other representatives of seafaring countries to join the transformation. It requires political will and influencing at the level of the UN agency International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is also needed to persuade maritime industry companies to openly share data with each other. The change is by no means impossible: the agreement on the use of Automatic Identification System (AIS) on board ships was made less than 20 years ago. As a result, it is much easier to identify vessels and define their position than it used to be. Slowing down climate change and maritime safety are issues we can all agree about.

Harmony of future maritime traffic

In the maritime industry, automatic, autonomous and unmanned vessels are currently a hot topic of discussion. In other words, in the future, ships could make decisions related to navigation on their own and, perhaps, future container ships might navigate without any crew on board. From the perspective of the coordination of global shipping and reduction of emissions, this change would be an excellent matter: the humanly understandable will to reach the target fast would not have any effect on vessel speeds.

A comprehensive implementation of totally unmanned vessels would be difficult, since modern ships need maintenance performed by humans in between the journeys. However, it is possible to install technology required for autonomous navigation, such as machine vision detecting objects and independent decision-making systems, on existing ships. If agreement can be found on legislative issues, vessels might not require 24-hour human lookout on the open sea. On-board such an intelligent vessel, a future seafarer could get more sleep, which is an excellent thing when it comes to safety.

One widely discussed topic today is the Internet of Things (IoT), which means that things network and communicate with each other. For example, kitchen appliances can share data with each other and around them: you get a message on your mobile phone when the milk is running out in the refrigerator. Personally, I am interested in the internet of intelligent ships. Ships share information openly with each other and coordinate their routes to reduce total emissions from shipping and to lower risks. The ships would also share object-detection information required for autonomous action, and weather, hydrodynamic and efficiency data essential for reducing emissions between them. Massive amounts of data would enable a functional artificial intelligence: the network of ships and logistics centres would become a “self-organised system”, as my colleague Göran Granholm would call it. The future maritime traffic is like a living organism that functions in perfect harmony with itself, the sea weather and logistical needs.

Mikael Wahlström

Senior Scientist, PhD (Soc Psych)

The post is based on discussions with maritime industry representatives and the publications related to D4Value and FASAN projects listed below. The publications were co-written with the following persons: Eetu Heikkilä, Göran Granholm, Deborah Forster (University of California San Diego), Antero Karvonen, Ronny Puustinen and Pertti Saariluoma (the last three are from the University of Jyväskylä). At the moment, the author is writing a book about how the intelligent machines of the future do not directly replace human employees, but they increase coordination between people, which is important with a view to sustainable development.


Wahlström, M., Forster, D., Karvonen, A., Puustinen, R., Saariluoma, P. (2019). Perspective-Taking in Anticipatory Maritime Navigation – Implications for Developing Autonomous Ships. Published in 18th Conference on Computer and IT Applications in the Maritime Industries COMPIT’ 19, Tullamore, 25-27 March 2019 (pp. 191-200). Available online:

Wahlström, M., Heikkilä, E., Granholm, G. (2019). Technology levels for maritime traffic coordination: towards the internet of intelligent ships. Conference abstract accepted to MTEC/ICMASS, Trondheim, November 13 to 14, 2019. Available online:

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