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Digital transformation: how will it change the seafarer's role?

We ask eight experts in shipping and maritime innovation and technology how they think seafarers' roles and lives will be transformed by tech advances - and what skills will be needed to meet the challenges of digital transformation.

While the shipping and maritime industry struggles with seafarer recruitment and retention, there are hopes that digital transformation will bring fixes for crewing and manning problems. On the surface, automation and smart ships may seem like an answer to seafarer shortages, however technology that's advancing at such a rapid pace will bring with it a whole new set of challenges to an industry that's already having difficulty finding adequately skilled workers. I ask eight experts in shipping and maritime innovation and technology how they think seafarers' roles and lives will be transformed by tech advances - and what skills will be needed to meet the challenges of digital transformation.

Matt Duke, Vice President Digital Platform, Kongsberg Digital  

Future seafarers will experience their vessels becoming more digitalised and thus more reliant on computerised technology. This means that keeping crew trained and ready to "Monitor the machine" will become no less important than it is today for a Chief on the main engine. The difference is that their skills will need to broaden to also encompass a degree of digital nativism, so that working on computer systems with high quality, and being able to troubleshoot operational issues related to the cyber-physical (Boundary between physical machine and the computer network) will become a part of their role.

The future hyper-connected world will offer a collaborative workplace for crew, with access to experts at land from their company and partners ready to assist and collaborate 24/7. Crew might also start working more remotely, with responsibility for several vessels in the fleet through remote operation. Systems allow a degree of automatic error checking, but the value of information sent from the vessel is extremely high, and it should be expected that crew have high focus on inputting reliable and correct information on-board. Same time they should build experience to pass a critical eye over automatically generated reports.

Safety is always #1 priority on-board, and this is no different for the safety related theme cyber security. Crew must ensure high vigilance in learning how to prevent against cyber threats, and what actions they can take to limit the effects of a breach in defences. They represent both our last line of defence, and also as the human in the system, our most valuable asset. Shippers must provide the systems and training needed to protect their operations from Cyber intrusion, and work with crew in practising how to recover from a cyber incident. The concept of emergency response management team training for the industry is not new. Cyber needs to be included as a training scenario, like grounding, main engine failure or piracy. Crew must be reliable in following this training, no matter how small the risk. Finally, I would like to wish any seafarers reading this article clear skies, calm seas and safe passage. I have a tremendous respect for the work they do in some of the most extreme environments and I am proud to work for a company that works to help them in that mission.

Anders Höfnell, Business Development Manager for Sweden, Lloyd's Register,

It should be emphasised that a cyber-enabled ship is not necessarily an unmanned ship. The short-term future of this technology will utilise enhanced automation and system autonomy but of course, the use of this will vary by ship. What potentially will change is how various ship systems are operated – seafarers will be required for operations and maintenance or repairs of equipment at sea for the foreseeable future.

Technological advances could, for example, collect data from cargo equipment and cargo itself, and this could be communicated to a shore-based ship operations hub with the ships’ machinery and hull data sent to another technical hub for analysis and remote optimisation. In addition to their traditional skills, the future seafarer will be involved in cyber-enabled shipping activities, both onboard ships and ashore, so will need to be proficient in automation, controls and software to a large extent. This is something that shipping companies will need to consider early and invest in.

Oskar Levander, Vice President Innovation, Engineering & Technology, Marine, Rolls-Royce 

Remote control will be important for the first generation of intelligent ships from a legal point of view. There will have to be a human being in charge, although they may be in charge of a large number of ships at any one time switching between them as the need arises.

It is unlikely that there will be a single autonomous solution applicable to all vessel types. Some could be completely uncrewed and look radically different from current vessels. Others will be a blend of autonomous and remote control; sailing autonomously in open water independently picking the best route and speed and remotely controlled where more advanced manoeuvres are required – navigating in congested waters and entering and leaving port. Some, such as cruise ships, are always likely to need crew if only in a customer service, safety and reassurance capacity.

Smart ships will provide a response to a growing maritime skills shortage. Ships are becoming increasingly complex with more systems, needing more skilled, operatives.

At the same time changes in lifestyle and expectations are reducing the attractiveness of seafaring as a career with fewer people wanting to spend weeks at a time away from home and family. Remote and autonomous operations could see the transfer of seafaring jobs, requiring high levels of education and skills, from sea to remote operations centres on land and make them more attractive to young people entering the industry.

Growing worldwide interest in remote and autonomous shipping has been driven by the potential benefits. They are expected to be safer, more efficient and cheaper both to build and to run.

According to a report published by insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error. This is often as a result of fatigue. Remote controlled and autonomous ships don’t get tired and will reduce the risk of injury and even death amongst ship’s crews and the potential loss or damage of valuable assets.

Nicholas Chan, Managing Director, Fredrik Marine, Founding Partner, Azione Capital 

The core skills of problem solving, and resilience is needed in a new generation of seafarers from a generation that's addicted to the consumption of the Internet both on the mobile and the Web. The seafarers of the future will need to stick to their roots of being good at what they do - solving problems independently - instead of relying too much on technology. It is the appropriate use of technology rather than the wholesale dependency of technology to provide a “silver bullet” solution in improving operations on board a ship that has to be considered.

A secondary approach will begin to see more technology that will augment operations on board a vessel by means of sense-gathering and sense-making to aid rather than to replace the seafarer’s knowledge by means of digital instruction manuals. Examples includes the use of interconnected sensors within an engine room linked to a sense-making system that will take these relevant data , process it, and provide findings for the seafarers rather than have him or her stare at a sea of buttons and blinking lights.

Used as an aid in decision making in the future, rather than a step by step instruction guide on how to do things on the marine vessels and platforms, current technological approaches from shore offices, designed and run by people who never went out to sea before gives the result of seafarers too dependent on technical instructions/manuals versus trying to figure out how to fix things themselves with the technical manuals as an assistant rather than the only solution.

The maritime technological advances that currently exist hardly improve the seafarers lives as they are typically designed from a shore staying person's perspective; many of the tools and functionalities does not actually make seafarers lives better but add additional layers of complications. I see that transformative technologies would only come in the next 5 - 10 years by companies with actual practical sailing experience coupled with sound technological and process experience to develop technologies (both hardware and software) that can practically act as interconnected human augmentation devices, letting the sailors function like a swarm, not unlike existing battlefield situational awareness systems used within the military.

Dr. Phillip Belcher, Marine Director Intertanko 

I am not convinced by the autonomous ship principle. If you think carefully about what can and cannot be automated, then we are mostly talking about routine navigation and routine engine operations. Maintenance cannot just be deferred to port visits and dry dockings. Some maintenance has to be done on board and using a maintenance berth every 2 months would be prohibitively expensive. Similarly berthing will still require people to be involved on board.

New mooring systems can be developed which do not require ropes being handled, however, tugs will still need to be connected and that requires people on board. Of course, they could be flown out by helicopter or arrive by boat but getting on board and being received still needs people to lower ladders and open locked doors. So, if you need people to do maintenance including software maintenance, mooring the ship and handle emergencies, then you are still looking at around 10 persons sailing with a ship. So, you are only saving the cost of around 10 other seafarers whilst requiring massive investments in new technology. Of course, it can be done, but the dramatic cost savings are not there. Another driver for that change will be required.

Communication technology will continue to improve on board and that should have a positive effect as families can be kept in touch. Of course, there are some downsides to instant communication as the seafarer can be loaded with the worries of the family but be unable to do anything about it. However, the positives will greatly outweigh any negatives.

Krystyna Wojnarowicz, Founder, CTO and Chief Strategy Officer, MARSEC Inc

The role of digital technologies is to serve us, humans; machines should be doing what they are best at and people should be doing what we are best at.

It means that tedious, repetitive tasks should be automated, going towards Artificial Intelligence, but it is humans who should have the ultimate say in final complex decision-making.

Good technology should be user-friendly, simple to use by humans, intuitive, with minimum specialized training needed. Current generations growing up in the digital age should have no problems with embracing the new digital maritime world - just like in any other industrial domain.

Wolfgang Lehmacher, Head of Supply Chain and Transport Industries, World Economic Forum 

Autonomous does not mean unmanned. Easily we let ourselves be carried away by the sheer unlimited possibilities of modern technology. It is hard to believe that hundreds of billions of value in goods are moving over the world’s oceans without our supervision. Also, difficult to imagine is that we can much further reduce manning of ships. Too impressive appears the fact that container ships like the 397-meter-long Emma Maersk can sail with only 13 crew. However, in the future humans might find themselves at very different places, equipped with very different skill sets. And who knows, maybe all will one day work on shore.

Engines become more reliable and number of crew in the engine room might get smaller. The deck crew might shrink due to improved loading and unloading technology and the drones which ensure security of ship and load. On board maintenance and repair will be supported by intelligent machines. Internet of things and artificial intelligence will take over most of the navigation and some of the bridge crew might move on shore – manned with officers assisting their colleagues who work on board different moving vessels in their work and final decision making. Journeys will be monitored with help of satellites and the internet of things – so will be the load and its condition.

Facial recognition and biometrics will ensure smoother and faster security checks of crews in ports. But the major breakthrough will be in the area of digital processing. Crews have to deal with an increasing amount of paperwork. However, thanks to DLT, bill of ladings, pre-alerts and entire customs clearance processes can and will be managed digitally and paperless one day. This is just a matter of time.

All these advanced technologies make the Electro-technical Officer (ETO) on board of today’s modern ships almost indispensable. Overall we will see a gradual shifts in the skills required of future seafarers: on the bridge from navigating to even more monitoring and final decision making, on deck and in the engine room from hands-on tasks like maintenance and repair, to even more supervision of technology at work – on route and in the ports. And we might also see a shift from labor on sea to labor on shore – which might not be a bad thing considering the hardship this profession represents for the seafarers and even more so for their families.

Birgit Liodden, Director, Nor-Shipping 

Marrying maritime and digital skills is the way to go; and any young person who wants to build a career should make sure to gain and continuously build their competence on technical and commercial capabilities within the digital sphere. Look to the aviation industry, pilots are still onboard, though the systems are autonomous. And just as for the car industry, I believe most parts of trade will steer towards autonomy level 3 - which means you theoretically don't need people but in practice they are in.