The oceans are the superhighways of international trade, with about 80% of global goods carried by sea. But this comes at an environmental cost: the shipping industry emits around a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases – mostly CO2 – per year. This is about 3% of the global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity.

Shipping companies are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and one potential solution lies in optimising ships’ routes so that they burn less fuel. To this end, a team led by the Turing’s Adam Sobey has developed voyage optimisation software that plans the most fuel-efficient route through the waves. This is a collaboration with UK company Theyr, which specialises in supplying high-resolution weather and ocean data to the maritime sector.

Theyr’s data feeds directly into the software, which uses what is known as a ‘genetic algorithm’, inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The algorithm creates a population of possible routes, and then mathematically combines (‘mates’) pairs of the most successful routes (i.e. those which arrive on time while using lower amounts of fuel and avoiding poor weather/ocean conditions). By repeating this process over multiple ‘generations’ of routes, the algorithm quickly arrives at an optimal solution.

The software is now being used by Euronav, a crude oil tanker company that has a fleet of 75 ships, and the researchers estimate that it will reduce fuel use by around 5% compared with other routing algorithms. Large vessels typically burn 50-75 tonnes of fuel per day, so this could save as much as £2,000 per day per vessel. And with this, of course, comes a significant environmental benefit: reduced fuel means reduced emissions.

“By optimising our shipping routes, this innovative software has the potential to significantly reduce both our fuel costs and our environmental impact. We are now rolling it out across our entire fleet of tankers.”

Patrick Declerck, Operations Manager, Euronav

This piece first appeared in The Alan Turing Institute’s Annual Report 2021-22
Top image: Euronav

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