Categories: Key Events
Date: 2 May 2024

Lost Containers at Sea: Navigating the Troubled Waters

Lost Containers at Sea: Navigating the Troubled Waters

We have all seen the occasional report on the news of a vessel at sea encountering severe weather, causing the loss of some shipping containers overboard.

Due to strict safety standards, this occurrence is infrequent, but when it does happen and if the contents of those containers cause it to float, it can become a navigation hazard and a source of pollution. Therefore, it is essential to track these containers as they float and warn all vessels, including big ships, fishing vessels, and leisure craft.

The issue of lost containers at sea is not just a minor inconvenience. It is a threat to the marine and shore-based environment and vessels. This problem is not going away on its own. It is becoming more prevalent as cargo ships and their cargo continue to grow. There are several reasons why a container may fall into the sea unseen and unidentified until reaching port, and each of these instances is a potential disaster waiting to happen.

Though it is infrequent, when it does happen, if the container floats, it can become a navigation hazard and a source of pollution. Therefore, tracking these containers and warning all vessels, including big ships, fishing vessels, and leisure craft, is essential. The OCEAN project has conducted surveys to identify patterns related to routes and weather conditions for lost containers. The necessary action is required to reduce such occurrences and minimise the negative impacts on ships and the environment.

Proposed Solutions

Among the proposed solutions to address this issue is issuing Navigational Warnings (NWs) when lost containers are detected and containerships are at risk of losing containers. Several elements must be considered before issuing NWs, such as navigational areas, weather conditions, the ship’s routeing, the ship’s characteristics, the container’s lashing system, and the ship’s loading conditions. NWs to vessels that are at risk of losing containers contribute to increasing the awareness of the ship’s crew.

The detection and reporting of floating containers with artificial intelligence (AI) using satellite imagery have also been explored. The possibility of detecting some containers with a resolution of a few tens of meters has been presented. However, one of the challenges with detecting containers on satellite images is the high financial cost of high-resolution satellite images. A recommendation was made to policymakers to make high-resolution satellite images available for maritime authorities.

Communication Channels

Several channels can be used to report information related to floating containers, such as sailing ships, satellite observations, or online digital articles. The OpenDrift framework has been used to develop a container forward drift forecast model based on the reporting information. By correlating model data with weather information and an Automatic Identification System (AIS), it is possible to identify which ship has lost the container and where and when it was lost. The broadcasting of NWs relating to lost containers could be more utilised. Implementing procedures for broadcasting NWs to ships at risk of losing containers is very useful.

Several draft amendments on mandatory reporting of lost containers with standardised reporting procedures have been proposed at the IMO level and are expected to enter into force on 1 January 2026. These amendments aim to streamline reporting procedures and improve stakeholder collaboration, laying the groundwork for a more coordinated and effective response to lost container incidents.

In addition, alternative methods for identifying lost containers using Large Language Models (LLMs) have been explored. When provided with report sources about lost containers, the LLM can autonomously analyse the content to determine if containers were lost, pinpointing where and when the loss occurred and quantifying the number of containers affected. However, there are still challenges in implementing LLMs, such as identifying reliable sources of information.

Containers on a Cargo Ship out at sea

Lost containers drifting at sea can cause significant damage to the environment, aquatic life, and habitats. They can also pose navigational hazards, risking collisions and potential disasters. Therefore, taking necessary measures to reduce the negative impacts of lost containers at sea is crucial. Proposed solutions like NWs for vessels at risk, AI detection, and LLMs for identifying lost containers can help.

The OCEAN project sheds light on the issue, and collaborative research can lead to effective prevention and mitigation strategies. Together, we can safeguard our oceans for future generations.

Read deliverable report D5.3 – Lost container forecast for ships, small craft and recovery operations Here

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