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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Can sniffing and scoping restore faith in shipping?

Tue 14 May 2019 by Gavin Lipsith

Can sniffing and scoping restore faith in shipping?

At the Sulphur Cap 2020 Conference last week, Michael Herson of The Strategy Works described the use of satellite tracking to enforce emissions legislation on the high seas as “the end of shipping’s Wild West”. Many laughed, but one shipowner sat silent. He took objection to the idea that ship operators want to evade regulation. What they really wanted, he said, was clear and consistent regulation that they could factor into their business plans.

Thanks to emerging drone technology he will soon get the chance to prove his point. Last week Denmark extended the range of its sulphur monitoring programme by launching its first airborne sulphur monitor. The move dramatically extends the range of a project that previously relied on fixed monitoring (under bridges, for example) or relatively infrequent manned helicopter flights.

Backed by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), the drone introduction indicates the zeal with which the European Union is backing enforcement of IMO’s 2020 sulphur rule. EMSA is training up new port state control inspectors rapidly as 2020 approaches and member states are being encouraged to impose severe sanctions. Meanwhile the US Environment Protection Agency could issue fines of up to US$25,000 a day for non-compliance.

A growing fleet of airborne sniffer drones would leave shipowners with fewer places to hide. But their cover may be blown completely as new all-seeing satellite technology takes hold. Mr Herson told delegates at the conference last week about Planet Labs, the micro-satellite company partly owned by Google. Among the maritime applications listed on its website is the monitoring of ship traffic, both in open sea areas and in ports, up to an accuracy of 3m.

As Mr Herson noted, if that level of oversight was combined with emissions tracking capability, there would be no refuge for emissions cheats on the high seas. Unknown to him, the day before the conference another Google-backed company had announced that it would use its own network of satellites to measure carbon emissions from all large power plants worldwide.

The company, WattTime, has yet to confirm whether it will include mobile plant in its monitoring. But that will inevitably come, if not from this project then very soon as the technology advances. And here is the thing that shipowners should care about the most: WattTime plans to render all its tracking information public.

At IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee meeting this week, delegates were greeted by protesters urging them to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For many of the interests in shipping, public perception is potentially far more important than the threat of fines. New technology will not just mean that emission cheats cannot evade enforcement. It will also be capable of showing the world, in real time and from any distance, whether shipping is living up to its promises.

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