Ever-accelerating innovation is expanding opportunities within the Marine Technology sector as companies around the world find new niches in ocean-related technology development. The sector impacts large swaths of the economy and can encompass industries in a variety of sectors. What’s more, many businesses that develop marine technologies do not limit their innovations strictly to the nautical realm. All hands on deck as we navigate the different spaces within Marine Tech and showcase some of the sector’s most tide-turning innovations.
But first, a definition
Marine Tech cuts across and powers virtually all segments of the broader Ocean Economy, which was valued at $1.5 trillion globally in 2010 and is expected to reach $3.0 trillion by 2030.1 In the U.S., the Ocean Economy produces over $350 billion annually in goods and services and is estimated to account for 2.0% of the nation’s GDP and 2.3% of employment.2 According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Economy includes six economic sectors that are dependent on the world’s oceans and other large water bodies, spanning from Marine Construction and Living Resources, to Offshore Mineral Extraction and Ship Building, to Tourism and Marine Transportation.
The Marine Tech sector can be thought of as encompassing all businesses engaged in developing technologies that the Ocean Economy needs to function. WEGEMT, a European association dedicating to advancing the sector’s knowledge base, concisely defines Marine Tech as “technologies for the safe use, exploitation, protection of, and intervention in, the marine environment.”
Examining the sector at the macro level, Marine Tech plays a core role in three major global economic domains: commercial shipping, naval operations, and ocean research.
- Commercial Shipping – Transporting goods or passengers from Point A to Point B via the world’s waterways and ports
- Naval Operations – Marine-based strategies and tactics employed for the security and defense of nations
- Ocean Research – Scientific research aimed at harnessing the ocean and its resources to improve the wellbeing of people and our planet, including applications in aquaculture and fishing, biomedicine, desalination, energy, mineral extraction, and climate science
Marine technologies are leading to advancements within these domains, with many innovations having applications across more than one of these areas. Marine Tech can be challenging to define in terms of specific sub-industries, though most definitions generally include some combination of the following: Marine Instrumentation and Equipment; Marine-Related Professional Services; Marine Research and Education; Marine Materials and Supplies; and Shipbuilding and Design.
Aquatic Apparatuses and Maritime Machines Transforming the Ocean Economy
Now that we know that Marine Tech is a critical driving force behind the vast Ocean Economy, explore at some of the neatest nautical innovations under development. A forward-looking report by Lloyd’s Register, Qinetiq, and the University of Southampton entitled Global Marine Technology Trends 2030 identifies 18 transformational technologies with the greatest potential to upend the marine economy by 2030. Many of these technologies, e.g. robotics, sensors, big data analytics, advanced and materials, seem familiar. We see them popping up throughout the economy with applications beyond just the maritime sector. Camoin Associates has written about some of them for the Navigator, including autonomous systems, human–computer interaction, and advanced manufacturing. Marine Tech is combining and adapting these technologies in unfathomable ways—here are a few examples.
We’ve heard plenty about self-driving cars, but autonomous and remotely controlled ships are also on the horizon. Plans to build the world’s first fully autonomous container ship were recently announced, with the vessel’s first unmanned voyage set for 2020. Rolls-Royce has announced it expects to see autonomous container ships in international waters within 10 to 15 years. Eliminating crews from ships comes with significant economic benefits. By one estimate, carrying sailors accounts for 44% of a ship’s operating costs, as salaries must be paid and valuable cargo space is taken up by accommodations and equipment for the crew. Autonomous ships also offer a solution to the chronic shortage of skilled maritime workers that the sector experiences. And with global piracy experiencing a recent uptick, unmanned ships mean no valuable human targets for international criminals.3 Autonomous ships will no doubt have huge implications for the increasingly automated logistics sector.
Underwater Data Centers
An enormous cost associated with operating data centers is the energy required for cooling the machines. Data centers are ideally located in areas with stable climates, low incidences of natural disasters, and cheap land, but also close to population centers. Data centers also need to be easily deployable, meaning that an operator must be able to build them on demand to respond to capacity needs wherever they arise. These factors make the ocean a hospitable, if unlikely, environment for data centers, and companies like Microsoft have made advances in making underwater data centers a reality. Microsoft is developing technology that would use surrounding seawater to cool submerged servers at greatly reduced cost compared to land-based data centers. Either floating below the surface or resting on the seabed a few kilometers from the coast, these servers would occupy watertight pods. They could be quickly deployed to wherever they are needed since the relative uniformity of the ocean precludes the need for customized design considerations.
Aerial drones seem to get all the attention, but underwater drones are also playing a growing role in many industries. Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) and unmanned surface vehicles (USV), as they are officially known, have applications ranging from oil and energy, to search and rescue missions, to the military and environmental study. For example, at roughly the size of a car, Waste Shark is a drone that vacuums floating trash from the ocean.
Though the idea has been kicked around for a long time, the kinetic energy produced by waves—the motion of the ocean—remains a largely untapped resource for powering the planet. While the world’s oceans have great potential for renewable energy production given their vastness and proximity to population centers, harnessing this energy has proven difficult. However, governments and companies are investing in technologies to overcome challenges around energy capture, durability of equipment, logistics, and cost. The U.S. Energy Department recently funded four wave energy technology projects to support the development of wave energy devices.