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Author: Matt Kenney

Matt has two decades of experience in maritime technology and operations, serving ten years at sea on private yachts, commercial vessels and drilling rigs, and and ten years ashore.

Matt proudly served as a Search and Rescue Mission Controller for HM Coastguard where he planned and executed life saving missions at sea, and has also operated research and support vessels in Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey. He is an associate member of IMarEST, holds a Bsc. in Sustainable Maritime Operations and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Trace Elements: The Beginners Guide To Maritime Container Tracking

Trace Elements: The Beginners Guide To Maritime Container Tracking

When a cargo owner sends containerised goods by sea, chances are they will not know where their payload is for some time and delays will be unforeseen because most ocean freight disappears into ‘Davy Jones’ locker’, only to resurface at some vague point in the future – hopefully at the right terminal and, especially in the case of reefer cargo, still in useable condition. 

It is a testament to faith that shippers have been content with this regime for so long, but things are now changing.  Soon, very few containers will be carried through this shroud of radio silence, as if transiting the dark side of the moon.  Instead, technology is converging to bring the humble container into the light, where its progress (and delays) can be seen and acted upon by all those concerned with its carriage.  Here, we take a brief look at both sensorless and ‘IOT’ container tracking solutions and ask: Can a container really be tracked from end to end if there is an ocean in between?

I recently bought a keyring from an online retailer of unprecedented scale and with a jungle-esque persuasion (no prizes for guessing which!) and once again, I was impressed by the ability to track my purchase from end to end.  The item cost me less than a skinny latte from a Richmond coffee house (as many things do), but I was able to know at each stage where my keyring was and watched it wend its way to my house, where I was ready to catch it as it fell from the letter box.

Domestically at least, this kind of visibility in the supply chain is easy to achieve.  So easy, evidently, that it comes as standard, even if you only purchase a keyring for a few pounds.  The technology is simple in principle; using a mixture of sensorless ‘checkpointing’, where the item is scanned into and out of known locations, and sensor-equipped location tracking where the item is traced using satellite positioning.  By connecting this data with a communications network, a customer can be kept informed at each stage. In the case of my keyring, I was informed when the item was dispatched, I could see when it passing into and out of two freight forwarding depots and finally I was presented with a map to show the location of the courier’s van as s/he closed with my purchase. 

As we know, carrying sea freight, whilst prima facie appearing to be a simple affair, is riddled with challenges: For containerised cargo to arrive when it is expected, the container must be stuffed and transported in time to be loaded onto the intended ship during a specified port call.  The ship must then depart when anticipated, make passage without deviation from the scheduled route and without incident to vessel or cargo. It must then arrive at the destination port on time and with minimal delay waiting for an available berth; being efficiently offloaded for domestic forwarding as planned, incurring minimal idle time in the process.  

Adding to the uncertainty, sea freight relies on a large, multinational team of customs officials, terminal operators, harbour authorities, maritime service providers, insurance brokers etc. and of course the ship’s crew.  The process is also vulnerable to a myriad of other factors such as the weather, sea state, political and industrial unrest and, in extremis, piracy or negligence.  It is easy to see then, how no two ocean freight deliveries will be the same.

The best remedy for this uncertainty is visibility.  Many of the factors above are out of the BCOs control, so perhaps it is best to be able to see deviations and delays and mitigate for them, rather than hoping to eliminate them altogether.  But the case for container tracking goes beyond being of benefit to the cargo owner alone. In such an interconnected ecosystem, visibility to the supply chain itself can reap major benefits.  Speaking about increasing supply chain visibility at the annual Transport Practitioners Meeting this year, Maersk CEO Søren Skou said “Both we and our customers will get value of our increased visibility.  Customers will get better insight in to their supply chains and Maersk will save costs.” Because these cost savings will be gleaned from efficiency gained through greater visibility, the result will be an overall improvement in the performance of sea freighting for the benefit of all. 

Tracking containers

There are two principal technology options for tracking shipping containers – ‘Internet of Things’ or ‘IOT’ systems, and sensorless, process-based container tracking.  The former uses a device affixed to the container itself. Measurements can be made automatically on a number of things like location, temperature and physical dynamics, which is then transmitted to the cloud.  By contrast, the latter harnesses human input to update the status and characteristics of the container as it progresses through the supply chain – similar to the checkpointing system.   


Although IOT appears to offer a more advanced solution, there are some major drawbacks. The idea of remotely tracking containers in the same way a transport company might track its trucks, is an appealing one.  What better way to confirm the location of a container than by viewing a live ‘ping’ on a map? In reality, however, that is not what IOT tracking delivers – at least, not always.  

GPS-enabled trackers, whilst having the ability to pinpoint a container to within a few feet, have three major drawbacks in the maritime environment.  Firstly, GPS antennae require a clear view of a number of satellites in order to gain a fix. Once the container is stacked in a yard or lowered into a ship’s hold, or obscured by an obstruction, this signal is lost and the container effectively falls, once more, in to radio silence.

Secondly, communicating with satellites consumes enough power to make battery life problematic.  This is being tackled by tracker manufacturers who are fitting their devices with solar panels, programming-in passive modes and harnessing improvements in battery technology. But none of these fixes offers an entirely satisfying solution – you either have to keep your container bathed in sunlight, accept planned breaks in communication or pay more for the hardware.

Lastly, the cost.  Not only because the cost of streaming data via satellite networks is still relatively high, but the capital expenditure required to deploy sensors to thousands of containers is a major consideration; and that is after it is decided who should pay – the shipper, the carrier, or logistics company?  Satellite service providers have been talking of reduced data exchange rates in response to the change that IOT is hailing, but according to some, data rates for tracked containers can still be as high as $10 USD per container / per month.

Sensorless Container Tracking

Without the ad-hoc nature of GPS tracking, sensorless tracking represents an efficient, reliable and cost-effective method of tracing cargo through the supply chain.

Simply by recording the arrival and departure of cargo at certain key points and transmitting this data to the cloud, it is possible to harness many of the same benefits that sensor-enabled tracking provides, i.e – knowing the physical location of the cargo and even what condition its in.

One major benefit to sensorless tracking is the human interface.  Although there are algorithms and computing power behind much of a sensorless system, the human is integrated and able to check the logic at each stage.  Seafarers have never been more highly trained and as competent as they are today and digitalisation does not need to shun or supercede this talent just yet.  Smart digital technology can work with seafarers, not only for the benefit of the cargo owners that drive the shipping industry, but for the benefit of the industry itself.

Resolution is no barrier to sensorless tracking either.  GPS can resolve to only a few meters, anywhere on the globe.  But, if a cell location is known, then a unit of cargo can be assigned to it – no need for GPS to grapple for a fix.

The downside to sensorless tracking is that it requires some method of unification with other supply chain partners to get the best from it.  Standardisation is key here and the work of the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), talked about in my last article, will be instrumental in propelling forward all types of container tracking in this regard.


Tracking containers is here and will continue to be the future for the container shipping industry.  The benefits of visibility to both the customer and the supply chain at large are now well understood and carriers are already investing in the technology to bring these benefits to the fore.

The two principal types of tracking technology, while each having their individualities, essentially deliver the same outcomes.  Sensor-equipped tracking has the benefit of being a self-contained end-to-end solution, but has drawbacks in terms of cost and technological limitations – especially when it comes to satellite positioning and global connectivity.

Sensorless tracking voids these concerns, but does require effective integration across the supply chain.  As standards in message formats and technology standards emerge, sensorless tracking will become a robust end-to-end solution.

Of course, there is no reason whatsoever, that sensor-equipped and sensorless tracking cannot work together.  Indeed, each would complement the other well. The capital expenditure of each could also be more evenly spread throughout the supply chain; with sensors being implemented by cargo owners or logistics companies, and sensorless infrastructure falling to the carrier and terminal operators.  

There is no doubt that the majority of boxes shipped globally, will benefit from enhanced tracking and visibility within the next decade – many already are.  For that reason, it is vital that both types of solution are developed cohesively and standards are agreed upon which will allow for a fully integrated, comprehensive and democratised end-to-end solution.

Digital Platforms as an Alternative to Box Carrier Alliances

Digital Platforms as an Alternative to Box Carrier Alliances

Over much of the last 30 years, container carriers have been on a mission to pursue profitability, enhance their customer value proposition, and manage swelling overheads by forming alliances and signing slot-sharing agreements with other carriers. Indeed a classic strength-in-numbers strategy, but in the age of big data, social entrepreneurship and cloud computing, there could be another way – the ocean network platform.  Here we take a look at the top 6 and ask – are we seeing a shift from traditional slot sharing alliances to digital partnerships?

The global ocean transport network is no longer a marketplace of competitor ships vying for the chance to carry goods from one place to the next.  In fact, this has been the case for some time. The web of ocean freight transport has been growing ever more interconnected as our globalised economy matures, and there is an almost universal acknowledgement from the industry that some level of cooperation is key to achieving the required economies of scale to make ship operating viable into the future.

Shipping is a costly business and carriers realised long ago that, in the pursuit of profit, managing the exorbitant cost base was vital.  In the mid-1990s, alliances emerged between smaller carriers to help them stave off ruthless competition from above, but today, three major alliances between the world’s most capacitive and influential carriers convey over 80% of global box trade and 95% on the east-west trading routes dominated by containerised cargoes.  The big carriers saw the benefits and wanted in.

The advantages are clear:  by sharing slots, carriers can optimise fleet deployment and increase capacity on quieter or more competitive routes, as well as offering shippers enhanced value proposition in the form of quicker shipments and more choice.  By sharing terminal infrastructure and services, operations can be tightened up and made cheaper through economies of scale. For the carriers, shippers, and ocean freight services industry, these advantages are welcomed in today’s uncertain global economic environment.

But as is so often the case, this strategy isn’t without its detractors.  The manufacturing and consumer industries, in particular, have vocalised their suspicions over an evermore consolidated carrier market.  Some see this cooperation as nothing more than collusion and a pernicious attempt to de-democratise container shipping in favour of strong freight rates and greater market control.  Others, while appreciating the need for such alliances, decry the carriers for their apparent unwillingness to pass any savings on to shippers in the form of discounted freight rates or reduced bunker adjustment factors.  

The platform approach

With the emergence of vastly more powerful data and communications technologies, there are new ways of achieving these economies of scale without further consolidation of shipping companies or raising further suspicion from shippers.  Consortium services like INTRAA, Tradelens, and CargoSmart’s Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN) bring a new kind of proposition by enhancing available services accessed through a shared, neutral platform, or as I like to put it – ‘Network Enhancement as a Service’.


Founded in 2001, the INTRAA platform has evolved from a simple container booking system to one providing a full suite of software and services to carriers and shippers.

The platform claims to be the largest neutral digital network and information provider in ocean carriage, connecting more than 35,000 shippers to 60 carriers and NVOCCs and hosting more than 850,000 container orders per week.  That is over 25% of global container trade.

Participating carriers include some big names like APL, CMA CGM, Cosco, Hapag Lloyd and Arkas, all of whom benefit from electronic booking, electronic Verified Gross Mass (eVGM) processing, container track and trace, container reuse, and demand uptake analytics.

The system can be used to exchange EDI format documentation and includes document conversion software to exchange hard copy documents like physical bills of lading.  An Application Platform Interface or API is provided to integrate their services with participant’s existing IT systems.


Tradelens describe their ecosystem succinctly as ‘every organization in the end-to-end journey of a cargo shipment, coalescing around a secure and versatile platform.’  

Tradelens consists of more than 100 organisations involved in end to end ocean freight transport, sharing data with each other through publication and subscription under a ‘digital permissioning model’.  Simply put, participants can access permitted data to help them improve planning, efficiency and equipment utilisation in exchange for providing pertinent data to help other supply chain participants do the same – quid pro quo.

Again, Tradelens purports to be a ‘truly neutral platform’, but has had to work hard to convince our industry that this the case since its launch in August 2018.  Tradelens was developed through a partnership between IBM and Maersk and continues to be run by senior Maersk figures. In an attempt to render an image of neutrality, Tradelens is putting together a pan-market advisory board in the hope that this will encourage Maersk’s competitors to join the party. This approach appears to be working, with Hapag-Lloyd and Ocean Network Express joining the platform recently.

Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN)

Launched just months after Tradelens in November 2018, the GSBN is another digital shipping platform that aims to connect carriers, terminal operators, customs agencies, shippers, and logistics service providers to ‘enable collaborative innovation and digital transformation in the supply chain’.

Using technology from Hong Kong-based software and blockchain developers CargoSmart, GSBN is backed by nine founding businesses comprising; ocean carriers CMA CGM, COSCO Shipping Lines, Evergreen Marine, OOCL, and Yang Ming, and terminal operators DP World, Hutchison Ports, PSA International Pte Ltd, and Shanghai International Port.

In July 2019, it was announced that service agreements had been secured as instruments for the continued development of the GSBN among the founding members, however, since inception most have also joined Tradelens, raising questions over the future of the platform.

Zaitoun International Maritime Consortium

Led by Dubai-based Zaitoun Green Shipping, the International Maritime Consortium seeks to collaborate on ‘radically improving the performance of container ships and forming a new business model for the box shipping sector’. The consortium consists of a number of industry players such as MacGregor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Marine Machinery & Equipment, Wärtsilä, Winterthur Gas & Diesel Ltd, Gaztransport & Technigaz, WIN GD, CargoTech and Carinafour and in January 2019, the consortium announced an academic partnership with the University of Turku in Finland.

With a focus on economic modelling and ecological efficiency, the Turku School of Economics will provide research aimed at finding new ways of realising profitability in the container sector.  

Sharing the limelight with Tradelens by launching in August 2018, the consortium is open to the whole industry to get involved, but there is yet to be any significant outputs announced.

Digital Container Shipping Association

Arguably, more traction has been demonstrated by the creation of the Digital Container Shipping Association which, since formation in April 2019 by Maersk, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd and Ocean Network Express (ONE), has added a further four major carriers – Evergreen Line, Yang Ming, Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) and ZIM – in quick succession.

With a focus on setting a common framework for digitalisation in container shipping and the standardisation of formats for the benefit of the whole industry, the DCSA aims to set the pace and direction of digital change in the box sector.

Whilst initially meeting with some suspicion from shippers, concerns have since been largely dispelled, owing to the DCSA’s commitment to making all of their work on everything from data interfacing standards to process blueprinting available free of charge to any interested party.

Smart Maritime Network (SMN)

Distinct from the other platform initiatives described here as the only one not operating on a non-profit basis and not exclusively for containerships, the Smart Maritime Network is nonetheless worth a mention because, in the months since it’s February 2019 launch, it has attracted an impressive membership including MSC, Wallem, V Group, Kongsberg and Dell Technologies.  

The SMN aims to facilitate the development of digital technologies by providing a forum for discussion, cooperation and information sharing among its members.  By generating media content, organising events and the creation of the ‘Smart Maritime Council’, SMN hope to become an instrumental part of coherent digitalisation in the shipping industry of tomorrow.


It is too early to tell what impact these platforms will have on the shape of the box shipping sector in the coming years.  So far, none of the three major alliances has announced any resignations among their constituents in response to the rise in platform membership and there is clear evidence to suggest many of the largest carriers will be content to hedge their bets and put a finger in every pie.

One can’t help wondering though, given the obligations placed on alliance members, whether these platforms might end up offering a solution robust enough to trigger the dissolution of the alliances.  Ultimately, only time and tide will tell.

Do the economic and environmental benefits of marine scrubbers stand up to scrutiny?

Do the economic and environmental benefits of marine scrubbers stand up to scrutiny?

The popularity of scrubber installation as a sulphur cap compliance option has risen exponentially over the last 18 months, with recent figures suggesting around 3250 ships are already fitted with an EGC system – 80% of them being open-loop. But shipping remains divided over their efficacy both in terms of commercial advantage and environmental protection. Matt Kenney asks whether commercial motives are veiling a dirty secret, or is the environmental case for scrubbers really getting stronger?

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The Curious Case of the Missing Ship

The Curious Case of the Missing Ship

Many ports are getting smarter, but ships are not yet fully-integrated into most smart port collaboration platforms.  Matt Kenney takes a look at why, and asks what shipping can do to bridge the divide.

Earlier this year I attended a port innovation symposium where an international group of port and technology thought leaders discussed current and future trends in digital port operations.

I listened to speakers describe port collaboration systems, port community systems, terminal operating systems, and the transposition of data into new, more secure formats like blockchain. All of these technologies are convening, if not yet conspiring, to deliver solutions for the lean, digitally-enabled maritime supply chain of tomorrow. Although opinions differed on methods and timescales, the speakers did agree on the notion that we are amidst a tectonic shift in port value chains. Enabled by Industry 4.0, this shift will bring new efficiencies to the quayside, hailing a fundamental change in attitude towards intermodal port supply chain partners.

However, as the discussions began to conclude, I sensed something was amiss. Indeed, I felt there was an elephant in the room: a top-level, international collective of thought leaders from the cutting edge of port technology and innovation, had astonishingly, failed to mention one word: ‘Ship’!

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Should seafarers learn to code?

Should shipowners build or buy new tech?

Should shipowners build or buy new tech?

With the shipping industry now fully recognising that a digital revolution has been steadily snowballing behind it’s back, carriers are facing the crucial decision whether to build or buy their next generation digital solutions.  Surprisingly, a significant minority are opting to go it alone and build in-house – choosing to trailblaze through the undergrowth, rather than tread the paths laid out by the digital revolutionaries. But are their use cases so unique, that self-building is the only way to tackle the emerging industrial landscape of the future, and is the amount of time, energy, and budget worth the potential competitive upside? Read more