Maritime education, research and technology

Brunel’s SS Great Britain

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation

Professor Richard Clegg, the Foundation’s Managing Director, introduces a global charity working for greater safety at sea

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation is a global charity whose aims are to enhance the safety of life and property and advance public education in engineering-related disciplines. It achieves this through sponsoring and supporting excellent scientific research, public engagement, education activities, and accelerating the uptake and application of research. In pursuit of its charitable activities, the Foundation is driven by a desire to achieve impact and excellence. It does this by working with the best minds globally and ensuring that what it funds is enduser inspired and useful.

The Foundation serves many sectors, on land, on sea and in the air, with the maritime community being a particular focus. The Foundation is the sole shareholder of the Lloyd’s Register Group (LR), hence the significance of the maritime focus. The Foundation and LR are able to work together in pursuit of the charitable aims of the Foundation, in essentially making the world a safer place.

One of the things the Foundation supports is the heritage collection of LR, built up over its 256-year history. This collection consists of over 600,000 items and provides an invaluable and unique education resource, which the Foundation is committed to ‘putting to work’ for the benefit of scholars and wider society.

Marine technology history

Delving into this archive reveals how maritime technology has evolved and shaped the industry over the centuries. In the nineteenth century the game-changer was the advent of iron and steam. The innovators of the new technologies were often outsiders, practical men from the emerging civil engineering profession with an empirical approach. This in turn led to the need for and growth in underpinning scientific knowledge and research, and ultimately the introduction of new rules as the century progressed.

The twentieth century bought with it advances in new engineering skills, which were harnessed by the maritime sector, pioneering new applications. The game-changing technologies were in the fields of communications, automation, the advent of shipping containers, and refrigeration. To illustrate this, the economies of scale of containerisation mean that a container of goods can nowadays be shipped the 11,000 miles from Southeast Asia to the USA in 22 days at less than the cost of a first-class air ticket. Similarly, the cost of shipping a bicycle from Thailand to the UK equates to about £6.50. For a DVD player the cost is £1.

Although technologies have changed and shaped the maritime industry over centuries, the drivers behind R&D innovation have generally remained steady. The drivers arise from pressures to improve profitability (increase efficiency, reduce operating costs), enhance safety and seafarers’ welfare, reduce accidents, and improve environmental performance. As engineering and technology applications developed and systems became more complex, the underpinning scientific understanding – of how and why things worked, aged and failed – needed to keep abreast. This led to advances in engineering-related research fields such as hydrodynamics, metallurgy, materials behaviour, and more recently human engineering.

Impact of technology on seafarers’ skills and education

Harnessing new technologies requires concomitant changes to seafarers’ skills and education. It is ironic, however, how innovations in new technology can actually end up diminishing the role of seafarers. This is not just a recent modern concern. In the late nineteenth century, worries were expressed about the danger of crews being overwhelmed by the management demands of proliferating and complex on-board systems. A pitfall is that lack of operator understanding of technology can lead to over-reliance and over-confidence. An example is radar. Introduced for safe navigation and collision avoidance purposes, over-confidence in the technology has itself caused accidents, leading to common usage of the phrase ‘radar-assisted collision’. New technology can also have the inadvertent effect of making the roles of seafarers more mundane, adding to difficulties in attracting and retaining staff. There is a danger that traditional, practical, hands-on experience is also lost as operator roles focus more on monitoring.

The twenty-first century

Polishing up the crystal ball and looking into the twenty-first century, what do we envisage the game-changing technologies will be, and what will be their impact on the skills and education requirements of seafarers? From the Foundation’s perspective, candidate technologies will probably be in the areas of big data, robotics and autonomous systems, 3D printing (additive manufacturing), and nanotechnology. In the area of big data, ubiquitous sensors coupled with advances in data analytics will lead to applications that in turn can enhance safety, reliability, performance, resilience and reduced operating costs, with feedback into better engineering design. Robotics and autonomous systems will ultimately lead to crewless ships. It is envisaged that 3D printing will herald an era of point-of-use manufacturing, which, it has been forecast, might reduce the global container shipping market by 39% because of the reduced need to ship raw manufacturing materials around the world and distribute products. In the case of nanotechnology, this will enable the manufacture of new designer materials that are stronger, lighter, more conductive, and with properties such as self-healing. The resultant impact on engineering design, choice of construction materials, coatings, joining technologies and electronics will be substantial.

Many of these advances in technology are being made outside of the maritime sector. For centuries, however, maritime has shared knowledge and information with other sectors, harnessing new engineering skills and pioneering new applications. The same will undoubtedly be the case with the new twenty-first-century technologies. The opportunity for technology cross-over from other sectors will present major opportunities. Aerospace is one notable example, particularly in the areas of sensors, automation and big data analytics.

Against this backdrop, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation is investing in a wide portfolio of grants supporting maritime-related research and education, for the broad safety benefit of society. In order to target its investment and charitable grant giving, the Foundation funds international expert panel reviews in hand-picked subject areas that identify those priority areas where it can make a distinctive contribution. Over the past two years the Foundation has published reviews in the areas of nanotechnology and big data. The nanotechnology publication has led to the award of £9 million in grants to three international consortia, one led by the Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Andre Geim to extend his work on graphene into application areas including marine. The big data report has also resulted in a £10 million grant to the Alan Turing Institute to focus on the engineering applications of big data, which we have named data-centric engineering. In the very near future, further reports are due to be published covering the subjects of structural integrity and resilience engineering. Two more are in the pipeline in the areas of robotics and autonomous systems, and energy storage.

In the skills and education area the Foundation is committed to supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in line with its charitable aims. Similar to the reviews mentioned above, such as in the area of big data, the Foundation has worked in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) to map the UK STEM education landscape. This has revealed, as anticipated, a crowded and complex landscape with over 600 initiatives, providers and schemes, all with no real oversight or coordination. At the moment, the Foundation’s grant portfolio in STEM subjects amounts to about £8.6 million in about 16 countries, many of these linked to supporting maritime causes.

Human engineering

Moore’s law observed that, over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. This is often taken to indicate that technology more widely is developing at an exponential rate. In the immediate future, many innovations and new technologies will be discovered and developed outside of maritime. The challenge for the sector is to harness these advances and pioneer new applications. And as technology advances, it’s not all about physical sciences and engineering. The people element, and a focus on human engineering, merits being of equal importance.

Richard Clegg has 30 years’ experience in the nuclear industry, government and academia, in both the civil and defence sectors. He is a member of the Nuclear Advisory Board to UK Government on UK nuclear strategy.