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Autonomous shipping hype ignores the value of the human element

Autonomous shipping hype ignores the value of the human element
The hype around autonomous shipping fails to take into account the value the human being can bring onboard a ship and the real cost of replacing seafarers, argues Anglo-Eastern ceo Bjorn Hojgaard.

In an interview with Seatrade Maritime News Hojgaard says he does not see autonomous shipping happening for the world’s fleet of 60,000 – 70,000 deepsea ocean trading vessels in the next 20 years.

“The argument is 90% of all accidents at sea are caused by the human factor, but does anybody stop and ask how many times did the human save the day? How many times would there have been an accident due to the failure of machinery where the human intervention saved the day? You never hear about those because they don’t become accidents,” Hojgaard says.

A former seafarer he notes that much of the technology being touted inthe market today is not actually new. “The reality is when I sailed 20 years ago and was a chief officer of containership with Maersk the ship could conceivably go from pilot station to pilot station by itself, it could make all the turns itself. The technology was there for 20 years for a lot of this stuff,” he explains.

While the potential capability has been there for many years for automation of vessels Hojgaard questions the business case and economics of replacing the crew. “Why would you replace the human onboard – because you can?” he asks.

Supposing the crew compliment can be reduced from its current number of 21 to eight, with the higher level of education and training those eight would need to operate the sophisticated vessel of the future he argues savings would only be about one third of the crew cost. That would equal roughly $350,000 or around $7m over 20 years.

“It’s like a drop in the ocean compared to what it would cost to automate everything, design wise and changing some of the basic technology.”

In the case of say the diesel engine he believes this cannot be operated autonomously due to the high degree of oversight and maintenance required.

It is not that Hojgaard is a Luddite, far from it, but he believes a realistic view needs to be taken of how the industry can benefit from developments in AI.

An example of area where rapid development is taking place is in broadband communications at sea. “Communications is one of the area that will see a huge leap forward in the next five years. In five years from now a ship will be as connected as any other office – what difference does it make if you’re in Antwerp or on a ship,” he says.

“I do think you’ll see a rapid opening up of the broadband and you’ll be able to do something new with all the sensors, big data and analytics. I think that’s happening.”

And there will be some autonomous ships. But they will be restricted to niche trades, such as the autonomous, electric feedership Yara Birkland that is under development, or electric powered harbour tugs.

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