Transportation – Part 4: The Marine Challenge – Containers and Ports

Humanity by necessity has to reduce its carbon footprint. We have talked about geo-engineering the planet on this blog site in a discussion focused on climate science and climate change. In this blog we will specifically look at the impact all modes of transportation technology on our planet at present. Our technology moves materials, goods and people across the planet without thinking about the environmental consequences. I can put blueberries from Argentina on my breakfast cereal in the morning. I can watch a television manufactured in Japan, or use an electric razor made in Germany. Although I try to buy locally so much of what is available to me as a consumer comes from across the globe. As consumers we are dependent on this global network of ships, trains, airplanes and trucks. And all are being rethought to address the energy and environmental challenges we face in the 21st century

In this blog we look at marine transportation. How are we as a technical society addressing shipping and its infrastructure requirements in the 21st century?

Marine Transportation Evolution

The earliest merchant ships used manpower and wind as energy sources. Until the 19th century the means to power cargo ships remained the same. In the early 19th century steam engines began to supplement wind as a power source. By the end of the century cargo-carrying sailing ships were fast disappearing replaced by coal-powered merchant ships.

Coal gave way to oil-based engine technologies in the 20th century. The diesel engine became the primary technology using heavy fuel oils. No one expressed concern about air pollution until the latter part of the century.

The way goods got shipped changed as well, which brings us to the rise of container ships, the redesign of port facilities, radical new ship design, and changes to shipping channels and routes.


Shipping today uses containers. Containers represent the basic unit of global commerce and have been around since the 1950s. In 2011 more than 17 million moved around the world on ships. Containers, originally steel boxes approximately 12 meters (40 feet) in length, have remained unchanged for a very long time. But that is coming to an end for several reasons:

  1. Steel containers are rust-prone.
  2. Steel containers are not designed for the digital age. Embedded tracking technology wasn’t invented when these containers entered the marketplace.
  3. Security and anti-terrorism concerns have necessitated a makeover that uses information technology for screening and tracking.
  4. New composite materials with built-in sensors make it possible to create lighter, more flexible container design.

Cargoshell is one of several new container designs that has emerged. Cargoshell claims to lower the carbon footprint of individual containers. Made of fibre-reinforced composite Cargoshell is lighter than existing containers saving weight, collapsible to occupy one-quarter of the space when empty, traceable, and secure against unauthorized access. Internal sensors measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, air quality and presence of radioactive materials or human occupants. Composite containers are networked objects that use onboard computer systems with GPS, and a content database that sends reports to custom agents and port officials.


With these new containers ports are being redesigned to manage intelligent traffic and so are the ships that dock at them. Seaports are becoming network-centric hubs with a focus on managing containers, bulk and passenger ships using information technology to integrate security along with operational efficiency.

New 21st century technologies include networked video surveillance to monitor port perimeters and access points.  Today in the United States, ports handle 17,000 containers every day with inspectors opening about 2% of this total. Intelligent container technology using RFID, GPS and electronic documentation will make it possible to analyze the contents of and track all containers entering and exiting a port. In addition imaging technology will see inside containers using x-ray and gamma rays with images transmitted by wireless networks to port officials. Port workers will use wireless devices to help them manage information and process cargo efficiently. Ports will be surrounded by intelligent fence systems with detection technology capable of sniffing out potential contraband and biological hazards and serving to help control access. All of this security and tracking technology should insure safety while not impeding the flow of cargo through the port. The net outcome should translate into faster port turnaround for cargo entering, unloading, loading and departing.

Ports will generate their own energy requirements using wave, wind and solar power supplemented by power from the grid. This will dramatically decrease the carbon footprint of port operations.

So what will it be like for ships entering ports that use the type of technology we have described?

  1. A day before a ship arrives it will send a cargo manifest to the computer systems used by the port officials. The software will coordinate all human and machine requirements to unload the ship upon docking. Many of the machines will be autonomous robots linked together through the intelligent network.
  2. When the ship enters the port hidden scanners will survey the ship including the external hull for security purposes.
  3. The port will include plug-in power and communication resources integrating the ship with the port systems so that they can talk.
  4. Network connected mobile electric-powered intelligent cranes will provide high-speed detection and unloading of pre-assigned containers. Containers will be placed on autonomous robotic container carts running on batteries with super capacitors for quick charging.
  5. Robotic carts will follow intelligent and powered port roadway systems using GPS navigation to deliver containers to pre-assigned holding areas. These areas will feature container stacks arranged for quick reloading on trucks and railway freight cars.
  6. Container management will include the tracking and examination of every container using many types of detection technologies not requiring human intervention. Humans will be limited to network management issues and system troubleshooting with the development of these new port facilities.

In our next blog we look at how ship technology will evolve to compliment intelligent ports and the implications of ship evolution on existing shipping lane infrastructure. We will also look at how climate change will lead to entirely new routes across the .

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...


  • Hi Len,

    Enjoyed discovering your blog and reading this post. Look forward to reading the next post.

    A few issues worthy of debate:
    -most shipping containers made of Coreten steel are treated to prevent rust (the current methods and materials used to prevent rust are not especially friendly to the environment but new materials and methods are showing promise)
    -most shipping containers get retired from commercial maritime use long before rust becomes an operational issue (the forces that containers experience tend to drive retirement or re-use, not rust)
    -except for very high value, sensitive or dangerous cargo, having real-time information about cargo location or container location, is of limited interest to container fleet owners (and hard to monetize with supplemental freight rates)
    -steel containers get screened at ports now using scanning technology-composites won’t change the scanning technology and scanning won’t identify many threats (e.g. biologicals)
    -scanning isn’t a particularly effective cargo screening method though it creates a sense of security and often identifies improperly declared cargo

    There are a number of companies (Staxxon, Holland Container Innovations, Compact Container Systems, Foltainer and Cargoshell) developing folding/nesting alternatives to standard dry 20′ and 40′ shipping containers. The commercial opportunity is to reduce empty container “moves” (also called touches) and the space occupied by empty containers. Reducing space, moves and costs associated with empty containers can reduce direct and indirect carbon footprints for containerized movement of goods but the initial adoption driver will be commercial advantages.

    Happy to provide more information if there is interest.

    Tom Stitt

    • Hi Tom,
      Thank you for the information on the evolution of containers. My interest in container technology is predicated by the larger transportation and movement of goods globally with the container being the base unit in which things get shipped. I recognize that the application of high-tech surveillance technology for the most part represents overkill and is largely being driven by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States. The technology being deployed, however, is very interesting because it has other potential uses and as the century progresses I will speculate on what those will be. I invite you to visit this site as often as you like and comment on any of the content. If you have sites or links you can point me to around the issue of container transportation I’d welcome your expertise. My next blog article will look at rail transportation in the 21st century describing trends, new technology and speculating on where we are headed.