In the 21st century when the world is witnessing digitalization at a rapid rate and use of technology even in the remotest corners of the globe, when the use of Artificial Intelligence is increasing exponentially in almost every sector, we can’t undermine the need of digitalization, use of latest technology and automation onboard ships to ensure the relevance of maritime sector in coming few years.
As a major chunk of the world trade (more than 90%) is carried out by sea, the shipping sector is adapting the new technologies rapidly. For many years, the maritime industry has witnessed the introduction of new technologies, such as the change from wood to steel, sail to steam, steam to diesel, and many more. A few years back, many of us would not have even imagined that the ship’s route will be laid down on a computer screen (ECDIS, as we know it today) instead of the standard paper charts. So obviously the ships and the maritime industry are technically evolving continuously.
Now, the next big technological change the maritime industry is looking forward to is the introduction of “autonomous ships”. Though autonomous ships are the talk of the town for quite a while now, the industry still looms under many confusions and questions regarding these types of ships. Even though the idea of autonomous ships is very exciting for ship owners and management companies, they are cautious in implementing or even trying out this technology so far. Most of the companies and owners are waiting for others to go ahead first to explore any opportunities presented by this technology.
Many big companies like NYK, Maersk, etc are investing in the research and development of autonomous ships.
The automation and digitalization come with its fair share of challenges, some of them are:
- High Initial costs.
- To get the necessary approvals.
- Need to amend existing regulations or create new ones.
- The infancy of the concept.
- The need for increased cybersecurity.
- Robust ship maintenance plans in the absence of seafarers.
- Reliability of the technology.
- Safety concerns over implementation as the transition from manned ship to autonomous will not be immediate but slow and initially these type of ships will sail alongside manned ships
Despite the above challenges, many players in the maritime industry vouch for the concept of autonomous ships because of the foreseeable advantages, some of them are:
- Minimizing ships’ turn-around and cargo handling time at ports for customers’ satisfaction.
- Less requirement of man-power, thereby saving the manning costs for the owners. According to a study carried out by the Technical University of Denmark, it is estimated that an onboard crew member costs in the form of salaries, insurances and on-board provisions around 1 million DKK or $150,000 annually, with crew costs typically accounting for around 20–30% of the total cost for a cargo ship’s journey.
- Increased safety at sea, as most of the accidents in recent history, were a result of “human error”. The Autonomous ships are expected to be programmed to identify and recognize objects, such as navigation aids and other vessels around the ship, improving situational awareness and increasing safety.
- Achieving better fuel efficiency thus having a positive impact on the environment. With the removal of crew, the construction and design of the ships will be improved enormously, resulting in a lighter and a more fuel efficient ship.
- It is also argued that the autonomous ships will help in decreasing the piracy activity.
As a seafarer, whether we like it or not, autonomous ships will be a reality in the coming future. Of course, it can take 20 years or maybe 50 years for the autonomous ships to completely come into existence but we should prepare ourselves for this change.
Also Read: NYK received class approval for autonomous ship framework
Personally, I believe, the number of seafarers will decline in the coming years as technology takes over but it surely will not end the whole profession of seafarers, as every difficulty comes with a new opportunity. If the current automation results in autonomy, the present jobs will be eaten away but at the same time it can open a whole new set of jobs for the seafarers. So, seafarers should continue to enhance their skill-set, keeping the future in mind.
What skills seafarer should enhance to meet up with the upcoming situation??