The ocean of things: Behold the ships of the future

26 Nov 2016

The oceans have always been the main stage of world history. Image: Corp Thor Larson, US Marine Corps/US Navy

With over 70pc of the Earth’s surface made of water, it is only natural that humanity’s history has had the oceans as its main stage. As we hurtle deeper into the 21st century, what will the vessels of the future look like?

I used to live beside the sea and from the perfect vantage point, night and day, I would witness ships rove in and out of Dublin Harbour. Some would make a stately progress in calm weather while others would valiantly battle their way into harbour in stormy seas. My favourite sight of them all was the USS John F Kennedy docked off Dún Laoghaire in 1996, and I took every opportunity to marvel at the immensity of it on motorboat and helicopter at the time.

In Dublin, I would take the DART to work, absorbed in proofreading and page planning as the waves felt like they would threaten to wash over our little carriages and sweep us all away. At night, I would see lights far out at sea on boats and would try to imagine other beings looking right back at the lights on shore.

The human connection with the oceans came to mind last week at the IoT World event at the Convention Centre in Dublin. While I discussed a new age of industry on a panel with Catja Hjorth Rasumussen, head of remote container management at Maersk, as well as Donal Sullivan from Johnson Controls and Kai Brasche from IoT WoRKS, I tried to imagine a future where ships roaming the ocean would be drones that would dock at robotic harbours.

Rasmussen said that while such ideas are always being considered, the human connection with the oceans would endure for quite some time yet, and the near future will most likely be about data and sensors.

It was a fitting talk because where we sat at the conference centre, encased in shiny glass and chrome and soundproofed from the world outside, the Dublin docklands would have looked very different 100 years ago. The Liffey before us would have been crammed with steamers, and legions of dockers would be industriously hauling coal ashore, while soldiers took one last look at home before embarking – for possibly the last time – to die forlorn and forgotten on distant battlefields.

The digital connection with the seas is one that is currently being actively explored through the creation of new ships and new ways of studying our oceans, and of course, the internet of things will play a vital role.

The nature of vessels and ships have changed dramatically too. For millennia, it was all about wood and canvas, navigating by sun and stars. Everything changed in the 19th century when steam power brought new efficiencies. The US Civil War brought about an era of ironclad warships culminating in the dreadnoughts and submarines of World War I. In World War II, the aircraft carrier brought a new dimension to warfare, and today it seems that the skies rather than the seas are humanity’s swiftest form of travel.

But never discount the value of our oceans and their role in our future.

Warships of the future

The US is looking at future warships, but things got off to a rough start this week when the USS Zumwalt, a $4.4bn stealth destroyer, broke down in the Panama canal. Either way, the US navy is investing heavily in hi-tech, transformer-like ships that will fulfil a number of roles.

Britannia has always claimed to rule the waves and the Royal Navy is valiantly – despite spending cuts – ensuring that it has the vessels to deal with a multitude of future scenarios.

The sea is probably the second oldest battlefield on earth and the US and the UK aren’t the only maritime powers grappling for control – don’t forget the Russians or the Chinese.

How AR and VR will be used to pilot future ships

Rolls-Royce is working on an amazing new technologies that combine sensors with augmented reality to give ships of all sizes – from trawlers to giant cargo ships – amazing HUD capabilities that look like something out of Star Wars.

Future of cruise ships

I have never been on a cruise, but it is on the bucket list. The cruise ship industry takes in not only the sunny Caribbean or Mediterranean climes, but you can also cruise to places like Alaska or Scandinavia or even the Arctic or Antarctic. These havens of luxury are also evolving, as these videos show.

Don’t forget the Irish

Before the Vikings terrorised our lands and founded Dublin in the year 888, or the Normans were invited by a traitorous but ambitious king, the Irish were acclaimed sea wolves, invading Wales and Scotland for centuries. Our own patron saint, St Patrick, was apparently seized as a slave by marauding Irish pirates.

Zoom forward to 2016 and while Ireland’s navy is tiny compared to the world powers, the country is immensely proud of the role it has played in saving the lives of at least 10,000 refugees in the Mediterranean so far.

Ireland is contributing to the future of the oceans in a different way than state-of-the-art ships.

A new asset to support Ireland’s maritime economy was switched on during the summer: the new SmartBay subsea observatory off the coast of Galway.

It will begin feeding data from the seabed to businesses, researchers and scientists.

SmartBay, supported by the Marine Institute, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, will be used to collect valuable data from the ocean and will be a critical component of a world-class maritime infrastructure in Ireland.


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years