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Maritime industry must embrace digitalisation, overcome crew change crisis

The maritime industry has to embrace digitalisation and operational automation, whilst continue with global efforts to overcome the crew change crisis, amidst the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, according to panelists speaking at the opening forum of the Seatrade Maritime Middle East Virtual 2020.

In spite of any existing systems or technologies in place, the unprecedented impact of the modern day pandemic has caused a huge shock to the global economy and triggered a chain reaction across different sectors, according to Abdulla Bin Damithan, Chief Commercial Officer of DP World UAE Region,

“We have all taken a huge hit. It is a huge challenge but at the same time it is also a chance for a new beginning. We are forced to think outside of our comfort zones and go beyond the traditional ways of conducting businesses,” he said at the virtual forum held on Monday.

Sustainability, digitalisation and innovation are the three key words that will lead the maritime industry onto the path of recovery, he shared.

“UAE has already embarked on this [recovery] path. Our sustained investments in technology have been the major contributor for DP World to remain resilient throughout this pandemic. We are still trying to constantly reinvent and adapt to changes,” Damithan said.

H.E. Eng Hessa Ahmed Hamdan Almalek, advisor to the UAE Minister for Maritime Transport Affairs at the UAE Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, highlighted the importance of public-private partnerships so as to continue attracting new investments into UAE.

“My big belief is on innovation and the uptake of new technologies. At UAE, we are encouraging our partners to look into new technologies and adopting new systems. The maritime sector is not one where you can adopt something new just within your waters; it needs an international adoption due to the international nature of the business,” she said.

“The way forward now is to continue to push for new technologies and digitalisation,” she added.

In the view of Shahab Al Jassmi, director, P&T commercial of DP World UAE Region, automation is the “backbone” of port operations in today’s context.

“Automation has really helped us during lockdowns. Some cranes can be operated from home, and multiple cranes can be remotely operated from one location. Today, we see that not only Dubai, UAE is doing this but other regions are also following and moving the majority of their operations toward automation,” he said.

Al Jassmi added that DP World terminals have managed to maintain operational continuity with minimal interruption throughout the pandemic, thanks to automation systems that are already in place.

“The pandemic has expedited plans on digitalisation. And 2020 is a year of major change for the maritime industry – a change that will benefit everyone for years to come,” he said.

With increasing focus on digitalisation, it is equally important for shipping to cast an eye on cyber security, according to Roel Hoenders, Head of Air Pollution and Energy Efficiency of the Maritime Environment Division at IMO.

“Cyber security is on the IMO agenda and it is work in progress. Gradually with increased digitalisation we have to move toward having a regulatory framework on cyber security,” Hoenders said.

“We are also looking at digitalisation to help in shipping’s decarbonisation process – how can digitalisation help us reduce congestion in ports, enhance port operations to be more energy efficient, reduce waiting time in port and hence reduce emissions in port areas,” he said.

In the midst of “terrible times” during the pandemic, president of Bimco Sadan Kaptanoglu has urged the industry not to forget the hidden heroes – seafarers.

“Shipping has now proven to everyone how important it is as a mode of transportation. The things that we need right now while fighting the virus are available to us because of shipping. And shipowners cannot perform without seafarers,” she said.

The biggest single issue caused by the pandemic is undoubtedly the crew change crisis, according to Esben Poulsson, chairman of International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and executive chairman of Enesel.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that this is a crisis, and this has saw Indonesia introduced a resolution at the UN this month to recognise seafarers as key workers. Fortunately we have not experienced any disruption to supply chain due to the tenacity of seafarers but the issue still must be dealt with,” Poulsson affirmed.

He observed that the number of seafarers working beyond their contractual dates has went down, which is good but still not a total resolution to the crisis.

Poulsson, who is also vice president of The Mission to Seafarers (MtS), said MtS has completed the Flying Angel Campaign to address the severe welfare issues facing seafarers worldwide, and is looking to launch another campaign to further help seafarers.

Poulsson reminded that the pandemic has led to seafarers getting stuck onboard for up to 17 months, and urged governments around the world to get involved in the crew change process if the crisis is to be overcome.

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