Reinvigorating maritime research and innovation


Patrick Carnie, Chairman of the Maritime Research and Innovation UK (MarRI-UK) Working Group, explains its purpose and focus

The UK’s maritime sector, which annually contributes up to £37.4 billion to the UK economy and supports over one million jobs, is bursting with energy and innovation. It offers a wide range of world-class maritime systems, services and support which underpin our international trade and our power as an island nation. The OECD project growth of the global maritime market to $3 trillion by 2030, which offers huge opportunities for the economy, academia, innovation and indeed for individuals. The market for autonomous vessels is expected to grow by 15 per cent annually and the intelligent systems market is also growing.

The need, and regulatory requirement, to reduce shipping emissions could add around £15 billion of economic opportunities.

Britain’s rich maritime heritage has long been rooted in our ability to identify and respond to major technological trends. Securing a leading role in this competitive field today increasingly depends on Britain’s ability to cooperate in technical and commercial innovation, supported by high quality academic research.

Today’s reality

ecoSMRT® (Single Mixed Refrigerant Technology) is Babcock’s innovative system for reliquefying boil-off gas generated on board LNG carriers during transit, reducing emissions and providing unparalleled efficiency, cost and carbon footprint savings. Photo: Babcock

The UK’s individual maritime businesses and universities have a long and rich tradition of great innovations. However, the reality is that collectively the UK is now behind competitor nations (Norway, France, Singapore etc) which are already actively coordinating maritime research and innovation investments.  As leaders, we recognise the need to cooperate to really make innovation work. With this in mind, MarRI-UK has been formed as a low-overhead vehicle for collaborative innovation across UK industry and academia. It will act as the spearhead for a network of innovation centres across the UK, which are developing innovative solutions to technological challenges. Eight maritime companies (Babcock, BAE Systems, BMT Group, Cammell Laird, Lloyd’s Register, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Shell), supported by the Society of Maritime Industries and four universities (Newcastle, Southampton, Strathclyde and UCL) have collaborated to develop this initiative.

At chief executive level a MarRI-UK steering group, under the interim chairmanship of John Howie from Babcock, has worked with Maritime UK, the promotional body for the British maritime sector, to attain support and secure funding from the UK government through different streams. ‘We established MarRI-UK in 2019,’ John explains, ‘with the aim of increasing the global competitive position of the UK maritime sector. Based at the University of Strathclyde, with a network of innovation hubs to be announced across the UK, it brings together a collaborative community that combines pioneering specialists from industry, academia, government and representative bodies. MarRI-UK will foster collaborative leadership and generate innovative solutions to help grow the UK’s maritime sector.’

In 2019 this unique initiative gained government recognition when the Department for Transport (Df T), supported by investment from Babcock and BMT Group, agreed to fund two innovation competitions and formalise the establishment of MarRI-UK.

Britain’s record has manifested certain weaknesses; Sarah Kenny, BMT Chief Executive and Vice Chair of Maritime UK, points out that sector innovation has not been particularly coordinated or attuned to national priorities, and no independent organisation had oversight or offered practical leadership. A maritime sector strengthened by MarRI-UK will lead the coordination of innovation across the sector by providing an understanding of commercial opportunities aligned to a shared roadmap. It will be underpinned by research in the UK’s world-leading maritime universities. MarRI- UK seeks to reinforce existing maritime initiatives and add a collective perspective.

MarRI-UK concentrates attention on the ‘valley of opportunity’ created when academia and business interests in research and innovation cross over –  typically in the middle of the nine-stage Technology Readiness Levels scale (TRL 3-7). This is where we can turbo-charge the commercial exploitation of discovery and research.

MarRI-UK will work closely with Df T and other departments to meet joint national maritime innovation goals. Our initial focus is on helping the sector develop new technologies and systems that improve holistic efficiency, focusing on autonomy, the lifecycle (including environment), integration, and safety in the maritime sector.

Reducing maritime emissions

Earlier this year, on behalf of the Df T, MarRI- UK launched a £1 million competition for innovative ways to reduce maritime emissions.

The competition was announced as part of the Clean Maritime Plan – the Df T’s environmental route map outlining the UK’s pathway to zero-emissions shipping within the context of Maritime 2050, the government’s statement of its vision for the future of the British maritime sector. The plan demonstrates Britain’s ambition and commitment as a nation to tackle this important issue, at a pivotal moment for the future of the maritime sector.

Research undertaken for the government suggests that the global market for maritime emission reduction technologies could reach around £15 billion per year, potentially resulting in economic benefits to the UK of over £500 million per year.

The need for collaboration

In order for the UK to become a proactive and practical role model in zero-emission shipping, government and industry need to work not only together but also with academia. MarRI-UK is working closely with the Clean Maritime Council – the advisory body formed by the UK government, in line with its Maritime 2050 ambition to ‘consider the introduction of a target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air quality pollutants from UK shipping towards zero’.

The intention for the clean maritime work stream is to support the development of zero-emission projects from TRL3-7. Where possible, these projects would be aligned with technologies in which the UK has been identified as having a competitive advantage. Research commissioned by the government has assessed the UK’s competitiveness in 11 key clean maritime technologies and found that the UK has the strongest competitive advantage in hydrogen and ammonia technologies, on-board batteries and engines. This latter area could prove to be a particularly interesting focus of investment, since a number of the low- and zero-emission shipping technologies (battery, fuel cell, hybrid electric) involve electric propulsion.

Enhancing the UK’s lead in maritime technology

Babcock’s iSupport360
Babcock’s iSupport360, launched at Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) 2019, involves an innovative use of next-level technology to create valuable information for the efficient management of ships, infrastructure and other critical assets.

As has been said, the government’s Maritime 2050 strategy, and the accompanying maritime route map (Technology and Innovation in UK), articulate the UK’s ambition to become a world leader in the development and uptake of new maritime technologies. Vitally, Maritime 2050 has also recognised that it is only through close collaboration between government, industry and academia that the UK will realise the benefits of a culture of innovation and technological advancement, in terms of export opportunities, highly skilled job creation and regeneration. What has been achieved so far?

The government has already taken action to support industry and encourage innovation by establishing the Maritime Autonomy Regulation Laboratory, to develop innovative approaches for regulating autonomous technologies. It has also supported the launch of the first Maritime 2050 Innovation Hub at the Port of Tyne.

The call for expressions of interest in the £1million Technology and Innovation in UK Maritime competition is a step to bridging the gap between research and commercialisation, funding a series of flagship projects that deliver innovative and marketable technological benefits to maritime shipping and infrastructure. The government and MarRI-UK encouraged a wide range of innovation projects, and it was made clear that bid proposals were expected to demonstrate a clear alignment with the ambitions articulated in the Maritime 2050 strategy and the Technology and Innovation in UK route map.

Overwhelmed by interest

MarRI-UK has been overwhelmed by the scale of interest in both of these competitions, which demonstrates the huge ambition of the UK’s maritime sector and its willingness to invest its own money. We will be working closely with industry and government to secure further investment commitments so that the UK can accelerate the growth of our share in this $3 trillion market.

MarRI-UK is now inviting organisations to join as members and help shape the research and innovation agenda. Membership is open to all UK organisations at levels to suit small, medium and large businesses.

Companies committing to MarRI-UK will help set the priorities and roadmaps to be used as a solid justification for changing government funding priorities.

Professor Alex Duffy from the University of Strathclyde, a co-chair of the MarRI-UK working group, sets out the reasons for researchers, innovators and businesses to become involved with this initiative:

‘To remain at the forefront of advancements, benefit from the collaborative network synergy, gain streamlined access to research and innovation expertise across the UK, and help set the agenda and influence government policy, joining MarRI-UK will spark change that will lead the way for the maritime sector of the future.’ n

Patrick Carnie is Strategy Director (Energy & Marine) of Babcock International Group. He chairs the MarRI-UK working group, supported by its director, Professor Alex Duffy of the University of Strathclyde, and Richard Westgarth of BMT. He was a co-author of Global Marine Trends 2030. Membership of MarRI-UK is open to UK organisations. For more information, see: