The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence shipping industry is incorporating greater digitalization along with artificial intelligence (AI) to make the most of available data to further improve operational efficiencies and environmental sustainability. Algoma Central Corporation, the CSL Group, and the Montreal Port Authority figure among the maritime enterprises leading this new era.
Algoma Central Corporation was among the early adopters of computer technology when it incorporated computer-based planned-maintenance systems to replace paper checklists two decades ago. “The system has profoundly improved how efficiently we track and perform maintenance,” says David Belisle, Senior Manager, Vessel Performance.
Similarly, Algoma was also an early adopter of electronic charts to plan and document voyages. “While this initially required more technology, it’s certainly been worthwhile given how much easier it is to apply updates, such as changes to no-discharge zones or other environmental regulations,” Belisle says.
Research is now being done into how artificial intelligence might assist navigators. “Algoma has established the reliable infrastructure to collect and store data that’s necessary before investing in AI or machine learning (ML) and we now look forward to the benefits that these powerful tools will bring,” Belisle shares. “For example, we’ve submitted a proposal to Transport Canada’s Clean Transportation System Program to explore how we can use ML to identify opportunities to improve engine efficiency.”
Belisle is most enthused about the possibilities afforded by performance monitoring. “It’s much easier now to break down a voyage by leg so that we can make better comparisons between the performance of similar vessels,” he shares.
Data earlier amassed into digital text files is now piped directly in real time from equipment meters to monitoring dashboards. “It gets exciting when you have more than 500 signals collected every minute because it lets us figure out all kinds of things,” Belisle says.
Examples include ensuring that engine governors are injecting fuel at the best rate for maximum efficiency. Others include determining the best speeds based on wind and wave conditions to optimize fuel use. By precisely monitoring exhaust gas temperatures in each combustion unit, any inefficiencies in fuel consumption are immediately flagged before something can falter.
“We’re also involved with Transport Canada’s Innovation Centre to specifically analyse the advantages of renewing the hull coating on one of our vessels,” Belisle adds. “We know this enhances performance, but we might now be able to determine to what extent.”
Data on propeller polishing is also being scrutinized. “Lake water minerals do accumulate over time, creating a rougher surface on blades,” Belisle explains. “The data can help us to determine how often polishing is required to keep propellers at optimal performance.”
“Our system has helped us to identify opportunities to optimize the combinator curve,” Belisle adds. “We’ve invested in a system called Lean Marine that increases propeller pitch and minimizes RPM within the engine’s load limit, thereby reducing the necessary combustion cycles and fuel needed to achieve a certain speed.”
The biggest advantage is the system’s elasticity to scrutinize data in response to key questions or posed hypotheses. “For instance, we’ve noticed that the amount of fuel we need to go the same speed in summer on the lakes increases and I suspect it’s because of increased hull fouling,” Belisle says. “If the monitoring data proves this is the case, we might consider re-tasking vessels to salt water to reduce fouling.”
AI technology can assist a new generation of onboard personnel to readily navigate with the abilities of the many officers now retiring with decades of sailing know-how. “This technology can give the new crews insights based on previous voyages, for example how to safely negotiate strong currents when approaching piers, instead of relying on first-hand experience,” Belisle says.
Digital leveraging at CSL
Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) has also been exploring, piloting and preparing for greater digitalization for a number of years and is now fully leveraging digital technology. “There’s no doubt that automatic onboard data capturing and relaying is increasing efficiency by allowing our seafarers to focus on high-value tasks rather than sitting in front of a computer to fill out tables and forms,” says Nathalie Sykora, CSL’s Chief Global Operations Officer.
Along with automating routine tasks, digitalization is facilitating onboard compliance monitoring in real time, as datasets are logged, geotagged and time-stamped. “We’ve taken advantage of geofencing capabilities to build dashboards that alert our crew when the vessel is approaching a non-discharge or reduced speed zone to ensure the protection of our marine ecosystems.” Sykora says.
Thousands of datasets are logged every second and fed into ML algorithms. “While we once had to solely rely on the professional instincts of our experienced seafarers and shoreside personnel who over the years developed an innate understanding of a vessel’s performance, we can now enhance our decision-making with accurate ML/AI data that help identify patterns that can potentially lead to equipment failures,” Sykora says. “Given current widespread labour shortages and our industry’s complexity, the more we can automate and make useful information available for the next generation of seafarers, the easier it will be for them to fully leverage and properly manage this business.”
Digitalization is also influencing how vessels are navigated. “Just as car dashboards now tell us when we’re wasting fuel by accelerating too fast, our seafarers now have all the weather, traffic and equipment data they need to sail from Point A to B with the greatest possible safety and efficiency,” Sykora adds.
CSL is having to adapt its procedures to the new technologies. “There’s so much data now that we must reassess what information takes precedence and who is best placed to decide to act on it,” Sykora explains. “All of this is reshaping how our shoreside personnel support a vessel, allowing the crew to focus on sailing duties, rather than filling out forms for a shoreside team to assess later.”
Digitalization is also permitting CSL to better compare vessel efficiency based on like criteria. “We can look at sister ships with a cross-reference to weather and operational tasks to determine why one might be performing better or worse than the other,” Sykora elaborates. “Any decisions we make are supported by data rather than anecdotal evidence.”
Port of Montreal employs AI 3 ways
The Montreal Port Authority (MPA) began using AI technology six years ago to provide truckers with predictive data on processing times at the port’s various container terminals. “Drivers can access the Trucking PORTal application online to help them better plan their schedule and routes,” explains Serge Montpetit, the MPA’s Director, Information Technology. “The data aims to increase traffic fluidity in and out of the port, which saves our land transportation partners time and money, while also reducing fuel use and greenhouse gases.”
A predictive dashboard shows truckers the average processing times at the different terminals for each 30-minute period over the next 24 hours. Quick views are available for the following three hours.
“We’re now developing a similar AI-based platform for the port’s railway partners so that we can optimize train movement within the port,” Montpetit adds.
Using AI to prioritize healthcare cargo to deal with COVID-19
AI technology has also helped the port to pivot quickly in response to the need for respirators, masks and other healthcare items to deal with COVID-19. “The Carg02ai logistics system uses artificial intelligence to quickly identify and prioritize the cargo items that we know can save lives,” Montpetit says. “An algorithm identifies this cargo as soon as it leaves its port of origin so that our port and partners can prioritize its processing and delivery.”
The American Association of Port Authorities gave the MPA its 2021 Lighthouse Award in Information Technology for the AI tool developed for humanitarian reasons.
While digitalization is relatively new to the maritime industry compared to other sectors, a transformation is occurring rapidly. “Digitalization can be a major tool to achieving the ambitious net-zero carbon emissions that the International Maritime Organization ratified as necessary to achieve within my lifetime,” Sykora notes. “This data can help us to increasingly optimize voyages to minimize fuel use as we transition to cleaner energy sources.”
Belisle says governments can encourage AI investment and integration by adopting it to enhance the navigation of Coast Guard, Navy and other government-owned vessels.