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Startup deploys wireless sensors across ship’s cargo hold to predict fire.


This pilot project trialled wireless sensors to detect thermal temperature increases on a cargo ship.

The Challenge

Fire remains one of the biggest safety risks on board a cargo ship, affecting workers, assets, cargo and the environment. Despite fire safety best practice being applied, preventing fires has become an increasing concern in recent years with ships carrying vehicles in their cargo especially at risk. Today’s conventional fire detectors (smoke and heat) require a significant heat level to trigger a warning and are not sensitive or accurate enough to detect thermal changes. Extractor fans onboard vessels can make things worse, carrying smoke away from fire detectors. To supplement fire detection systems, cargo holds are routinely inspected by crew, using predefined walkways between the vehicles. However, this is a lengthy and manual process, and fire risks are not always visible to the human eye.

During voyages, vehicles are stowed 10 to 15cm apart, making access challenging. Typically, fire can spread between cargo units (cars) within an alarming five to ten minutes, heightening the importance of identifying the fire’s location as early as possible. This Safetytech Accelerator challenge, set in partnership with Wallenius Wilhelmsen, one of the world’s largest global vehicle carrier operators, sought innovative solutions to detect significant thermal increases of transported vehicles early, in real-time, with little or no false positives. The company sought cost-efficient and user-friendly sensor solutions, capable of identifying the exact location of the heat change on a ship’s deck, and accurately communicating the change in real-time, via a warning panel.

The Solution

The Safetytech Accelerator worked closely with Wallenius Wilhelmsen to outline the technology parameters for the challenge and, along with Accelerator partners Plug and Play, sourced 14 best-in-class startups with cutting-edge and new approaches, capable of tackling pre-fire heat detection. From these applications, the four most promising startups were shortlisted to pitch their safetytech solutions in front of LR experts, industry judges and Challenge Partners Wallenius Wilhelmsen, with US-startup MonoLets chosen to pilot their proposed solution. At the University of California in Berkeley, MonoLets is developing ultracheap sensors with the potential to be produced at a price point of just 20 cents each, which industry experts believe could open up a vast number of new applications for safety and beyond.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen would use MonoLets’ knowledge and expertise of wireless technologies to prove the effectiveness of using a mesh network of BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) sensors in detecting pre-fire conditions and communicating results, when deployed across the cargo hold of a ship.


A model of a Wallenius Wilhelmsen ship carrying vehicles.


The Pilot

Wallenius Wilhelmsen collaborated closely with MonoLets, providing access to their ship and expert crew and outlining their required parameters. The company wanted a solution that was more sensitive than their existing fire detection systems, capable of quickly pinpointing the location of an at-risk vehicle. Through the trial, they also wanted to determine if the wireless solution would be robust enough to maintain reliable connectivity in the harsh maritime environment. Lastly, Wallenius Wilhelmsen wanted to understand the minimum number of sensors required to provide adequate coverage across the entire cargo area. This would determine the cost of deploying MonoLet’s solution, post-trial.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen provided access to one of their vessels transporting heavy machinery and vehicles over a three-day period, travelling from Tacoma to Long Beach in the US. MonoLets deployed a 20-node wireless mesh network on one of the 13 decks on the ship. This deck was roughly 220m long, 30m wide and 1.83m high and provided an appropriately demanding environment.

Larger distances between sensors would result in lower costs; however, this could potentially reduce the reliability of the wireless connectivity solution. Several distances were trialled, the first ten nodes were placed 4m apart, with the next ten 3m apart, covering 70m across the deck in total.

Overnight, the mesh network was wirelessly formed, and the solution was tested. Some nodes were found to have disconnected from the network, resulting in unreliable temperature detection. To mitigate this, the inter-node distance was reduced to a reliable 2.5m, for the remainder of the voyage.

Earlier lab-based testing and analysis indicated the sensors needed to be 1m apart, to accurately detect a rise in temperature. Determining the furthest detectable distance from the heat source is a complex thermodynamics problem and was beyond the scope of this pilot.

During the trial, a heater was placed at random on the deck, to test if the solution could locate an at-risk vehicle. A MonoLets engineer manually and accurately identified its location, from the real-time data collected. In production, the alerting mechanism would of course be automated.

“The Lloyd’s Register Safety Accelerator gave us the opportunity to test our wireless connectivity technology in a real-world scenario. We knew our technology can make a big impact but seeing it in action to improve safety at a customer site in a harsh RF environment was immensely satisfying. LR was involved right from the beginning, in regular meetings with the customer and provided feedback as we made progress on the pilot. We had a great experience working with their team.” Osama Khan, Ph.D.,

Founder and CEO, MonoLets.

Cargo below the wireless ceiling sensors.

Powerful Results

The pilot has helped Wallenius Wilhelmsen to understand how a sensor network can be deployed and maintained with reliable results during harsh sea conditions, over a three-day period. A vehicle-carrying vessel typically has a deck area between 55000 to 65000 sqm for cargo. The trial found that around 40000 sensors would be required to provide complete coverage on a ship.

Similarly, the company was able to determine the economics of deploying such a solution. Casing the sensors in robust packaging for the marine environment and fine-tuning their accuracy will cost around $1 USD to install, per node, excluding maintenance costs. Typically, ships have a service interval of around five years. If the temperature sensor nodes can run on a five-year battery, then costs can be minimised.

“This has been an exciting and valuable project for us as a shipowner. It is not often we have the chance to work with start-ups from the non-maritime industry and we have learnt a lot from working with MonoLets. The project has gained strong support from our colleagues onboard the vessels who really appreciate our efforts to make their workplace even safer. We see vast potential in MonoLets sensor technology and connectivity for other applications onboard, such as predicting maintenance requirements and thus reducing cost and downtime and not just for safety aspects”, Capt. Filip Svensson, Marine Operations Management, Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

This pilot has helped Wallenius Wilhelmsen understand the technology fit and economics of a wireless mesh network onboard it’s vessels. Further thermodynamic tests that more realistically simulate a vehicle fire will need to be performed, before this type of technology can be deployed across the fleet.

Industry-wide Impact

According to Allianz’s Safety and Shipping Review 2019, 174 fire incidents were reported the previous year, with an incident occurring every 60 days on average. Through their Risk Barometer, Allianz predict that fire and explosion will be the biggest safety threat for the Marine & Shipping sector in 2020. Maritime insurers are welcoming new fire-fighting methods, capable of quickly detecting and extinguishing fires and reducing these incidents. The technology demonstrated in this pilot could form part of a wider solution, to identify pre-fire conditions.

About the Safetytech Accelerator

The Safetytech Accelerator is a dedicated open, not-profit initiative created by Lloyd’s Register Group and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, bringing together corporates, startups and the wider technology community to collaborate and accelerate the adoption of safetytech in safety-critical industries.

In early 2020, the Accelerator was awarded the Global Lloyd’s List Award for Excellence in Data and Technology Innovation, in recognition of its excellence and impact in innovation, setting it apart from the competition worldwide. The industry-leading panel felt that the programme, the first of its kind globally, embodied everything that the Lloyd’s List Awards were established to champion, displaying important and impressive global impact for safety and risk in critical industries, including the maritime sector.