Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Shipping and Seafarers’ Continuous Professional (Ir)Relevance

Simon Tersoo Iorliam, one of three winners of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, addresses the need for preparing the next generation of seafarers to a more digitalized future due to the automation of the maritime industry.

October 10 2019

The maritime industry is experiencing technological innovations of an unbelievable magnitude. Today, one of the most amazing modern maritime technological inventions in history – the autonomous ship – is no longer a concept but a reality. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines a Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) as a ship which “can operate independently of human interaction”. The technology, despite its enormous benefits, has among other challenges the issue of the continuous relevance, or irrelevance, of seafarers.

The idea of MASS was born as far back as in the 1970s, when Rolf Schonknecht in his book entitled “Ships and Shipping of Tomorrow” posited that in the future, Captains and Engineers will operate ships onshore using computers. After that, several researchers have made significant strides in that direction. The most recent is the Rolls-Royce/Kongsberg project. Rolls-Royce Marine (now acquired by Kongsberg) successfully tested the world’s first fully autonomous ferry on 3 December 2018 and said, “we strongly believe that the future of the industry is remote and autonomous, and all vessels will benefit in one form or the other depending on type and operations.” Kongsberg is looking forward to delivering the world’s first autonomous container ship “YARA Birkeland” by 2020. All indications are pointing towards the actualization of the autonomous shipping technology, at the latest by 2030.

Consequently, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the IMO in its 98th and 99th sessions opened discussions and commenced deliberations to develop scopes for certain conventions to provide an international regulatory framework for the arrival of MASS. At MSC 101, the trend shifted to MASS trials. One of the most critical aspects of this technology is its operation, especially the human-machine interface. In my opinion, MASS ships should have shipboard operating capabilities and arrangements, not necessarily for seafarers to be onboard, but in case they are to be introduced as a result of any eventuality. It is also very important to note that the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals have also fully opened the window to embrace technological improvements and environmentally friendly inventions and innovations.

MASS technology has unimaginable benefits, ranging from reduction of cost by removing or reducing the crew which constitute more than 50% of the vessel’s total daily operating cost, improved turnaround time, elimination of human errors (which represent 80% of accidents globally), just to mention a few. Interestingly, the technology has come at a time when drones, satellite communications systems, and other amazing technologies are in place to help reduce the risk of piracy attacks on vessels through proper surveillance and proactive measures.

Contrastingly, there are possible security challenges expected to accompany the emergence of this technology which the international maritime community must consider seriously and address. These include cyber-attacks, piracy and sea robbery, as well as terrorism, especially with the recent attacks on two tankers (MT Kokuka Courageous and MT Front Altair) off the coast of Fujairah.

Aside from these, there is a major challenge of threat to seafarers’ jobs and employment. Presently, seafarers represent an indispensable population in the global trade workforce. According to the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Labour Organization, there are over 1.5 million employed seafarers onboard different types of vessels in different parts of the world. What is more, by estimate, over six million people may be depending directly on these seafarers, if we keep it on the ratio of one seafarer to four dependants, and over 20 million people benefiting indirectly from their jobs globally. What would be the fate of this population, in the long run, if these teeming seafarers were to become jobless?

To address the challenges highlighted above , the committee on Human Element Training and Watch-keeping (HTW) of MSC will have to re-organize the curriculum of Maritime Training Institutions (MTIs) globally to embrace this new trend, tilting seafarers training more towards maritime information communications technology (ICT) and regulations that can enable them to participate effectively in the technological revolution. But, another question are  the seafarers who are presently employed in the industry and those who are presently undergoing training in their respective MTIs worldwide. How do we phase these engaged people off or provide alternatives for them when the demand for their services declines and the inevitable challenges of life dawn on them and their respective dependants?

J. F. Richard once said that, “desperate times call for innovative measures”, and I think this is what the Global Maritime Forum is doing: harnessing innovative ideas to improve the maritime industry. Fortunately, not all kinds of ships will operate under this category for now. The transition will be gradual and seafarers will soon begin to realize the trend. Nevertheless, the MSC and HTW must recognize that there is substantial need and expectations for a new crop of seafarers in view of the automation of the industry and subsequent technologies. In my opinion, what we must do is to produce the seafarers of the future – digital seafarers, who will sit ashore and take ships to sea and back safely, observing the relevant regulations, whilst carrying out the conventional functions of seafarers automatically and conducting them safely even in the face of perils. But, even more than that, they have to envisage themselves in the ships to accomplish these tasks effectively.

However, before we eventually transit to that stage, we have to look at seafarers who can fit into both the traditional and digital functions, so that the majority of seafarers on the sea can return ashore to work in the MASS industry conveniently. Thus, the industry can look at alternatives like designing ICT courses for seafarers and ship operators.

In view of the foregoing, the international maritime community is invited to take cognizance of the wide gap that exists between this expected future shipping technology and the present maritime training in Africa, as it will have measurable effects on the overall success of the MASS industry.

Simon Tersoo Iorliam is a 30-year-old Maritime Safety Officer at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigeria.


Read the other winners of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition:

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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