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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Five technologies that will transform tug operations

Mon 16 Apr 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

Five technologies that will transform tug operations
Svitzer and Rolls-Royce tested technology for remote control of a tug in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2017 (credit: Riviera Maritime Media)

Further automation, cyber risks, greater power requirements and strengthening environmental regulations are all influencing the tug and salvage industry.

Technology will play a leading role in the future development of the tug and salvage industry, whether this is a drive towards further automation or delivering more engine power while producing less emissions. There are also influences from online risks and software developments, according to maritime law firm, Hill Dickinson legal director Jack Hatcher.

He outlined to Tug Technology & Business his views for the top five issues and technology influences that tug operators and salvage service providers are likely to face in the future.

Automation and e-technology

Mr Hatcher thinks automated processes and e-technology can add value to the tug industry and so will developments in remote control and autonomous vessel operations.

However, it is not just developments in remote control of tugs that he has in mind. It is also how the shipping industry’s drive towards developing crewless ships will influence tug operations and salvage.

“Automated vessels are a revolution rather than an evolution,” said Mr Hatcher. “Automation is going to happen and it is going to change things markedly.” He explained that a fundamental issue from shipping’s perspective is ensuring that the legal and insurance framework can adequately respond to issues arising from developments in greater autonomy, “which certainly is not the case at the moment”.

Mr Hatcher expects salvors will also have to adjust to responding to emergencies involving unmanned ships. “With no crew on board there will be no practical help on deck to assist with loading and use of salvage equipment,” he explained.

“Salvors are going to have to learn new techniques and introduce their own technology to deal with automated ships.”

 Cyber risks

As automation and e-technology is introduced throughout the industry, the potential cyber threat to vessels and hardware increases too. This has been encountered in commercial shipping, but, Mr Hatcher believes it has not yet affected tug operators or salvage companies.

“It is a concern and a risk, and salvage companies face the same level of risk as any other company in the world,” he said.

Vessel size

Owners and their insurers may sometimes baulk at increases in salvage costs but salvors are facing new challenges which they must adapt to. Mr Hatcher explained that this includes container ships that have reached more than 22,000 TEU in capacity.

“A key issue for salvors is that they have to invest in the technology and equipment to be able to cope with these large-scale ship casualties,” he said, adding that there are very few salvors in the world that could deal with refloating or removing container ships of this size from shorelines. “It is both an investment and a risk from their point of view.”

Strengthening environmental regulation

Increasingly strong new global and regional environmental regulations challenge the salvage industry too. Mr Hatcher said these regulations have changed the order of priority for salvors.

“Salvors’ primary job, after saving life, is to protect the environment, whereas previously it was to protect the vessel,” he said. “It could be argued that if you protect the vessel the environment should be protected, but that doesn’t always follow.”

These priority changes have an effect on shipowners as well. “We are seeing environmental concerns and the related action needed in salvage incidents having a direct correlation with increased costs,” said Mr Hatcher.


Blockchain presents a potential opportunity if introduced as part of the salvage process, he predicted. “We get a lot of enquiries on this issue and I can definitely see a day where the salvage process is potentially part of a blockchain,” he said.

Mr Hatcher does not know whether the industry overall would be prepared to develop and pay for such an idea. Blockchain could be useful as salvage projects involve different vessels, contracts and equipment in different parts of the world.

“There are arguments to be made that it could be relatively straightforward – not to say beneficial – to introduce salvage into blockchain,” Mr Hatcher concluded.

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