Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Ships tracked with smart software

Map of global ship movements, Royal Dirkzwager
The global shipping trade generates a lot of data

Ships could be in and out of European ports much quicker thanks to smart software that monitors their movements.

Developed for Dutch firm Royal Dirkzwager, the monitoring system tracks ships almost in real time.

It will be used to tell ships to speed up or slow down to ensure there is a berth for them to unload.

As use of the system increases, it hopes to cut costs, reduce fuel consumption and allow ports to unload and service ships much faster.

Ship spotters

Founded in 1872, Royal Dirkzwager began by only monitoring ships that pass in and out of Rotterdam in Holland. Information about ship movements is valuable to governments, cargo handling companies and maintenance firms.

Paul Wieland, Dirkzwager's manager of logistics and ICT, said it used to employ people equipped with binoculars to spot which vessels were in port, which were waiting to unload and which had just appeared over the horizon.

The advent of automatic identification systems (AIS) made that job easier, he said, but still limited Dirkzwager's ability to monitor movements.

"We used to have visibility of shore-to-sea of about 20 miles away from the receiving station," said Mr Wieland. "But it was very short visibility of a geographically limited part of the world."

As ships move to adopt space-based identification systems the view that Royal Dirkzwager has of shipping has opened up enormously.

Oriana cruise ship, P&O
Ship spotters are keen to know when cruise liners dock

"By interconnecting networks and using space-based IS we can suddenly see the whole world," said Mr Wieland. "That's an incredible increase in the amount of data we can theoretically track and process with our systems."

It has meant a shift from 200 position reports every second to more than 1,000.

"We're going to monitoring every few seconds rather than once a day," Mr Wieland told BBC News. "We were simply not able to handle that amount of data."

To help it cope Royal Dirkzwager has just turned the key on a monitoring system that automatically analyses a stream of data to pick out related events. It is based on the work of former academic Giles Nelson who developed the Apama software.

Dr Nelson originally developed Apama for financial institutions who had a need to swiftly route information to key traders no matter where they were.

Mr Wieland said Royal Dirkzwager's monitoring system would help Rotterdam and other European ports handle ships far faster.

Rotterdam handles more than 30,000 ships per year, he said, and any delay can be very costly.

"We're monitoring the journey of a ship to make sure it is going to a port that has available berth space to accommodate that ship," said Mr Wieland.

"By following a ship we know when it's passed through the Suez Canal and we can see it's going to arrive one day early and that berth will not be free until the next day," he said. "If it's too early you can, for example, slow it down instead of burning fuel and arriving too early and taking up anchor space outside the harbour."

"Logistic processes in ports have speeded up." said Mr Wieland. "The stay becomes shorter and shorter so information about the arrival of a ship is absolutely critical."

It is not just businesses and governments that are keen to track ship movements, said Mr Wieland. Royal Dirkzwager was also using it to drive an SMS alert service for ship spotters who want to know when a particular cruise liner is in port.

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