Vassalos thinks that the long-term future of impact-resistant materials will most likely rely on engineering new compounds and structures at the atomic or molecular level – or “nanomaterials” as they are known – that possess special properties like high strength and low mass. In 2010, the US molecular engineering firm Xyvex Technologies unveiled the largest boat built from nano-enhanced materials – the Piranha USV, a 54 ft (16.4 m) vessel constructed from the first commercialised carbon fibre containing carbon nanotubes (Arovex). The company claims that the lightweight hull reduces fuel consumption (and therefore the amount of flammable fuel needed to be carried on a ship) by 75 %.
But how can you help ships steer clear of icebergs in the first place? The year after the Titanic’s disaster, the International Ice Patrol (IIP) was set up to monitor the stretch of the Atlantic Ocean around Newfoundland – Iceberg Alley as it is known. The IIP still sends out a daily “iceberg watch” bulletin, originally from a host of reconnaissance ships, but now from aerial patrols and radar.
Ship crews from 100 years ago would struggle to recognise modern-day bridges, with the wealth of hi-tech equipment on display to help pinpoint locations and increase safety. The old compasses that found “magnetic north” have now been replaced by gyrocompasses that find “true north”, which has allowed autopilot to be introduced on ships. Radar and depth finders that use echo sounding are vital for anticipating and spotting hazards.
But arguably the most important navigational innovation has been Global Positioning System, or GPS. Satellite-positioning technology provides the fastest and most accurate method for navigating and pinpointing location, and is not weather dependent, unlike the old calculations based on Sextant measurements of planets and stars. The newest piece of kit found on the bridge is the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) – a naval form of Google Maps that incorporates GPS, radar and an automatic tracking system for ships called the Automatic Identification System (AIS). A mandate from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will come into effect this year, requiring many international commercial ships to use ECDIS.
As important, if not more so, have been improvements in communication. The Titanic carried radio equipment with a range of 200 miles, but the strength of its transmitter drowned out signals sent and received by vessels in close proximity. Nowadays, very high frequency radio allows ships to communicate with port authorities as well as other vessels nearby, and to broadcast safety information and distress calls.
Even with all these modern technologies, mishaps still occur. Between 1980 and 2005, there were 57 incidents involving icebergs in northern hemisphere waters. "The risks really are as great now as they ever were," says Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge. Wadhams argues iceberg numbers are increasing and so are the number of ships, many of which lack state-of-the art technologies for economic reasons. "In Canada a lot of research has been done on radically improving ship's radar to improve ice detection, but they cost a lot and no-one is going to put them into service because you wouldn't need that complexity of radar for 99% of operations," he claims.
Wadhams, whose grandfather was chief engineer on the SS Mesaba, which sent ice reports to the Titanic, believes greater regulation is vital to future safety. Currently no laws prevent ships from ignoring the IIP and sailing through iceberg-infested waters. "There are discussions going on for an international polar code that would set actual regulations for ships operating in waters where ice is possible," he says. "This would dictate where they go, what they do and what safety equipment they have to carry, but that's still being discussed."