For shipping, the future is Sea Traffic Management

(Detta är den engelska versionen av det förra blogginlägget, reds. anm.)

Many of my recent blogs have focused on monitoring the shipping industry worldwide from various political/environmental angles. So perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to what is happening with the STM initiative. Perhaps a glance in the rearview mirror might serve as an appropriate introduction.

STM’s origins

Around the mid-2000s, the IMO launched the concept of e-Navigation, giving it a definition that has been interpreted and altered repeatedly since then. The e-Navigation concept docked at the Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) in 2009, and we were expected to draw up a more concrete example of how it could function onboard and, perhaps onshore, and what its value could be for the SMA and the shipping industry. In turn, this gave rise to the idea of sharing information about a vessel’s route, referred to as Route Exchange. This was a completely new approach that had never previously been seriously tested.

The Monalisa triple helix project started in 2010, with several components but in which route exchange was the underlying key concept. The Monalisa project fell on fruitful soil with the EU Commission, which thus funded most of it. The results were so attractive that the actors involved were able to continue with the sequels Monalisa 2.0 and STM Validation projects, and to which some 50 authorities and companies from 10 EU countries affiliated.

The term STM (Sea Traffic Management) derives from the Monalisa project of Dec 2011 and can be traced to its equivalent in aviation – ATM (Air Traffic Management). Thus, from this already existing system, the simple idea of exchanging routes among vessels quickly developed. From the SMA´s viewpoint, transport policy and improved safety were the immediate aims, but there were also potentially reduced costs for the SMA and the Swedish shipping actors.

The role of the Costa Concordia sinking

2012 saw the fatal foundering of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in Italy, and subsequently officials from the Italian Ministry of Transport, who had learnt of our innovative ideas about route exchange, contacted us at the SMA. The parent shipping company of Costa Crociere – Carnival Corp in Florida – joined the STM consortium and became a very active partner. The reason for its affiliation was that it was determined to ensure that a similar accident would never happen again, at least not on any of its ships!

One of the major attractions of the STM concept is that it is also offers information on arrival and departure times at an early stage through route sharing, using well-defined international standardized formats.

By these means, STM creates opportunities for a significantly more efficient, safe and sustainable transport system. Through an overall Just-in-Time (JIT) approach – in which intermodal connections are also taken into account, resulting in significant reductions in bunker costs – STM represents a potentially major contribution to the competitiveness of shipping.

The secondary effect of reduced bunker costs is a highly desirable reduction in GHG (greenhouse gas emissions), with up to 25% in some cases. Given the climate challenge facing shipping, this must be viewed as an extremely attractive win-win benefit for the industry and planet alike.

The IMO’s aim is to reduce emissions by 50% before 2050. If it is already possible to achieve 10-25% of this target just by sailing smarter, STM can be expected to a given success from the sustainability viewpoint as well.

“The devil lies in the details”

However, we’re all familiar with the expression: “The devil lies in the details.” and seldom has a phrase been more accurate than in the context of shipping.

What seems simple in theory often turns out to be extremely complicated in terms of practical application. This is especially true in a global arena with many different actors and aims, as well as authorities and companies… not to mention consensus among countries. Add to this the historically sluggish pace of legislative change, combined with an insanely conservative industry, and one can only conclude that it’s incredible how far the STM concept has nevertheless progressed to date.

IT-architecture for Sea Traffic Management

When STM was initially presented at major conferences such as IMO, EMSA and the e Navigation Forum, the audacious STM developers – who managed to avoid being thrown out of the meetings – were essentially laughed at and severely scorned. In particular, the idea that routes were to be exchanged among vessels and shore facilities and that various types of services (route optimization, navigation assistance, anomaly calculations, etc.) could thus be offered to vessels, encountered massive skepticism.

“Information from a ship should NEVER be shared with people ashore!”

“E-Navigation happens onboard and stays onboard. Full Stop!!!”

Since then, a great deal of water has passed under ships’ hulls and the awareness of the benefits of digitalization has increased enormously. Some 300+ participants came to the STM validation project’s final conference in London in late 2018, and in his speech, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim, emphasized that:

“STM is the future for the shipping world…” Talk about sweet revenge!

Actually, route exchange simply involves sharing information. The factor that differentiates the traditional, verbally spoken question on VHF: “What are your intentions?” from route exchange by STM is merely the format in which it is delivered. The plan can either be communicated by voice over the VHF or be sent digitally via the ECDIS screens.

I don’t think any captain would refuse to answer such a question from another ship wanting to raise its situational awareness by coordinating with surrounding vessels, by asking about his plans regarding course, speed and route. So, only the medium has changed, not the content itself.

Let’s make a comparison between two types of traffic that have a lot in common (and not just the phrases and titles used onboard): To suggest to the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) that aircraft should cease submitting their flight plans before takeoff would, of course, be regarded as completely absurd. Shipping and aviation obviously have completely different views of information sharing and what we call a “common situational awareness” But should it really be so? After all, when everyone knows what everyone is up to, life on the bridge becomes so much easier. So why the widespread differences between the two industries?

(The answer is the Chicago Convention from 1944 through which 52 member countries agreed that cooperation was necessary to gain safer airspace).

The steps ahead

It’s now been eight years since STM took its first stumbling steps and where does STM find itself today? What has been accomplished and what remains to be done?

A total of 60 companies, 15 countries and almost 500 people have been involved in the development and application of STM. Everyone who has worked with the project on a daily basis lives in the belief that everyone else also knows what it is, but unfortunately, that’s an optimistic view of things. Most people are blissfully unaware of the STM phenomenon, although understanding of it is steadily spreading upwards and downwards throughout the shipping world.

Building International awareness is a sluggish and tough task!

The first prototypes, international standards and the many comprehensive tests in the Monalisa and STM Validation projects worked out well, but as in all research and development work, bugs and glitches invariably present challenges for our test pilots and programmers.

There is a risk that the good intentions will suffer if the stamina required by the concept and insight into the technological shortcomings cannot sustain an often challenging and occasionally rather boring task. Getting all the ducks in line in such a comprehensive concept as STM is by no means an easy task, and requires considerable patience. Endurance and intensive international work put Sweden on the map following its invention of AIS (Automatic Identification System)!

Lately we have noticed that several major international players, both authorities and companies, are actively working in the same direction as STM, i.e. information sharing, and this is probably the best rating the STM concept can get.

One of the big issues is getting a common international platform through which information can be handled, a so-called MCP, Maritime Connectivity Platform. An MCP must be based on clear, jointly agreed protocols and standards and is required to have a clear administrator and support function that can handle all the practicalities of the information flow vis-à-vis the users.

STM’s future looks bright

At the STM validation final conference, Kongsberg, Saab, Sperry and Wärtsilä – meaning the really big players in the maritime industry – agreed to form the STM Industrial Group through which Combitech in Linköping has been asked to set up, host and manage the management function. When our industry finally links up on innovation projects, implementation can really start to roll, but not before. Developing and investigating new concepts is not always a top priority for industry but when it feels the time is ripe to roll out new products on the market as momentum builds, it commences large-scale production.

Critically important for the future of STM is that EMSA recently adopted the STM concept and is now launching an STM pilot for all maritime authorities in Europe. In particular, EMSA heavily emphasizes autonomous shipping in the STM context and the question is whether it is possible to develop autonomy in shipping without any form of global Sea Traffic Management?

Authorities and the heavy shipping industries in Europe have now started to use STM as the accepted platform for information sharing. What SMA had longed for so long has now finally begun to happen!

The grueling and sometimes exasperating innovation efforts by the Swedish Maritime Administration and its steadfast partners throughout Europe via three major EU projects for almost 10 years is finally starting to emerge from the muddy innovation ditch. With sore nails and knees scraped clean, STM employees are coming slowly up to the edge and can begin to see the long-awaited added value on the horizon.

EMSA’s futuristic presentation of STM!!

We can see how more than 400 vessels have been made STM compliant and we are especially glad to see how Carnival Corp has installed STM on all 100+ mega-cruise ships among its ten cruise companies. The entire fleet is now monitored from Hamburg in its in-house developed Neptune program (Costa Cruises developed it). It’s called the Fleet Operation Center, FOC. Simply put, the skipper communicates with the FOC and, in turn, the FOC connects with the outside world. When the rest of the world’s shipping companies achieve similar progress, they can easily connect with MCP.

Also on the port side, players have started to move in the STM direction. Without ports, it’s quite meaningless to operate shipping, so synchronizing the information between ships and ports is perhaps the most important part of STM, with significance also for how shipping links to other types of traffic such as road and rail. Therefore, it is with great pleasure and satisfaction that the STM groups now note that Wärtsilä recently had a major meeting with the Port of Rotterdam, Valencia Port, Hamburg Port and Gothenburg Port to discuss issues such as Ship-to-Shore and Just-in-Time that are high on STM’s agenda.

M/S Britannia moving through the Oxdjupet Sound in Sweden. Photo: Johan Berggren

Keeping Nordic technology and innovative capacity at the forefront

So the snowball is now definitely rolling. It is also true that others will notice when new balls start to roll, and see them grow larger, prompting competitive impulses and the invariable emergence of new ball concepts. Similar parallels can be drawn with SMA’s launch of the AIS idea. When other countries began to grasp the extent and possibilities of AIS, some came up with alternatives. Britain attempted to introduce a fairly primitive system but – thanks to superior Swedish technology – that approach was swept clean from analog and non-standard initiatives.

Worldwide, several players have now started launching information-sharing solutions identical to what STM has been working on since 2010, and with names that are not infrequently similar to STM. When competing solutions start to nip you in the neck, it’s time to raise the pace.

How can Sweden now react to ensure that, also this time, it can keep other less globally applicable initiatives at bay and once again confirm that Nordic technology and innovative capacity is at the forefront?

Individually but also jointly, Sweden, Finland and Norway are already operating small and medium-sized STM-based projects. We need to create a common overall vision and strategy that all projects and implementations can support when creating partnerships both in and outside Europe.

This red thread must be firmly rooted in both ministries and authorities. Sweden has a very high-profile strategy for innovative work – but wouldn’t it be nice to go from sweet-talking to real action?

A definite message is required

A total of € 71 million has been spent by the EU on the development of STM. In comparison, between 2008-2016, the EU spent € 2.1 billion (!) in the aerospace field on the further development of ATM within the SesarJU program!

It’s certainly high time to give indications about the future approach. Any uncertainty about continued involvement from the Swedish side would be like throwing all the money and the overall Swedish industrial, academic and government expertise in the garbage can. It will also be perceived as a failure of the EU’s quality assurance system for R&D and its priorities. Swedish know-how and competence are much in demand in the field of STM!

If we want STM to continue to develop, a broader industry authority consortium needs to be created. The Nordic countries’ maritime authorities, with their respective maritime industry partners, should be included in the already existing international STM consortium to enable further development and practical implementation of the STM concept, in parallel with globally accelerated implementation on a broad front.

Only then, and not before, will we be able to get the process up and running, which will make STM onboard ships as natural as AIS, radar and GPS are today.


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