Orbcomm's dry container monitoring solution

Last year, Hapag-Lloyd partnered with Orbcomm and Nexxiot to equip its dry containers with tracking devices. Each Orbcomm tracker, costing around $100, features GPS and accelerometers to check the whereabouts of each container. And, although Hapag-Lloyd did not opt for this level of functionality, the system could also be used to measure the internal temperature of each box, potentially saving seafarers’ lives, “for a few dollars more”, according to EVP Christian Allred.

Though smart containers have been around in reefer trades for a while, Hapag-Lloyd’s move was new for dry containers. That hasn’t stopped Drewry forecasting that a third of dry containers will be equipped with telematics devices by 2027.

“Until last year we took a fairly cautious view of adoption of these sensors… but I think it’s the effect of the first mover on competing carriers… it will force others to follow in order to keep up,” Drewry head of research products Martin Dixon told The Loadstar in July.

Orbcomm finds itself in an intriguing position – a tech company which stands to grow to meet the demand for IoT-enabled dry shipping containers, facing no incumbents on the way and few rivals. In such markets, predatory pricing and a proprietary approach to software integration have been de rigeur. But faced with this question, Mr Allred insists Orbcomm is fostering the opposite approach.

“We believe our platform is the best in class, but we see the need for data-sharing even today,” Mr Allred told The Loadstar. “We have decades of experience and, even though the OEMs are coming up with their own platforms, ours does significantly more than most.

“But we are still very much in favour of the data-sharing concept. I think we may have more integrations with other vendors, and with our partners, than anyone else in the industry. We have lots of APIs.”

“The big shipping lines will say ‘we are building our own platform, we are a billion-dollar entity… I want your data, I may even use your platform in some aspects, but I also need data feeds to ingest into my own platform’.  We also want to build everything to the DCSA [Digital Container Ship Association] standard, we try to make sure we stay up to date.”

DCSA emphasised the importance of a ‘technology-agnostic’ approach – one which prioritises compatibility, rather than squeezing out the competition — in conversation with the Loadstar this week.

But less clear was the question of Orbcomm’s liability in cargo disputes. Mr Allred explained that their data is squarely in the hands of the shipowner.

“In the past we would say we own the data, but now we have a lifelong licence to access the data, but they own it. We can use the data for our purposes, to display it, but ultimately [the shipowner] owns the data.”

This means shippers and BCOs may be incentivised to collect their own data at pallet level, rather than relying on shipowners to relinquish the relevant data in the event of a fire, or damaged cargo. Telematics devices, such as those of Orbcomm and Nexxiot, could pinpoint the origin of a fire, but “…would [a shipowner] divulge that information if it wasn’t supporting their defence?” was the question posed by insurer TT Club’s Mike Yarwood.

“It’s a question we have been discussing and considering for a while. So with a lot of data-sharing solutions, wherein multiple parties’ data is collected… when something goes wrong, this data exists, everyone knows it exists,” said Mr Yarwood. “But whoever owns that data is not always going to be motivated to disclose the data to those who might be bringing the claim.

“In any legal proceedings, we would request disclosure of that information – so it would come out in the wash. But it is another potential frustration point.”

Mr Allred responded: “We like it when the shipping line provides access to the BCOs – we can provide that access, any time they want. But that is the shipping line’s customer, and we don’t get involved with ‘the customer of my customer’. I can open that window, no problem, but that is a policy question for them – the shipping line.”

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