The future of maritime careers and employment are supposedly under threat from new technology and all the fantastic leaps which automation will bring. What is really going to happen, we think we have the answer.
All the signs indicate that the business environment for shipping is changing, and changing fast. While we have discussed how trade may affect ships, what will the new way of operating mean for skills and people?
Whether automation will really mean no crews on ships? Will the rise of artificial intelligence mean the end of the lawyer? Where will the burden of responsibility lie? What will people do instead and where will the jobs be?
With autonomous vessels not far over the horizon, it is time to think about the wider consequences, not just for business, but for people. Seafaring is jokingly called the second oldest career in the world. Don’t ask who came before the crew. What it all means is that an entire profession, calling and career which has been around for Millenia is potentially under threat.
Seafaring is at a critical juncture. According to industry data, a perfect storm of retiring baby-boomers and the ongoing global economic downturn, are causing the number of skilled seafarers in the global industry to shrink dramatically.
So, it seems that people are already voting with their feet and there are fewer people coming into the industry and wanting to work away at sea. That is a massive potential problem, but one that is not insurmountable. Indeed, automation and advances in connectivity could solve the looming skills crisis.
What will be the role of automation in tackling the ongoing challenge? According to The Manpower Report by BIMCO/ISF, there has been a steady fall away in crew numbers. In 2010 the study calculated the global supply of officers stood at 624,000, compared to a demand for 637,000, concluding the figures were ‘near-ideal’. While just a few years later, the picture had changed.
By 2016, the shortfall stood at 16,500 officers and is predicted to rise to 147,000 worldwide by 2025. In the United States, figures published in 2016 by the U.S. Maritime Administration placed the country’s shortfall at 70,000 mariners by 2022. The figures are not sustainable, if trade is to remain at current levels, or unless technology levels the supply/demand playing field.
Captain John Lloyd, Chief Executive Officer, The Nautical Institute, recently spoke on the issue. He felt that the increasing sophistication of technology is opening the door to serious discussions about the remote control of ships. So, the professional body for those in control of ships is already gearing up for such control to be automated.
Of course, one of the key challenges will be to balance the cost of reliability against performance and financial viability through savings. Will pulling the people off ships really mean cheaper, better, faster transportation?
Seafarers have done a pretty good job of getting ships where they need to be, and of surmounting all kinds of challenges along the way. Yes of course there are accidents occasionally, but is it really going to be the case that technology will become infallible?
Given the travails of autonomous road vehicles, it seems there are still yet some ghosts in the machine. A Tesla car killed its owner when it couldn’t distinguish a pale coloured wagon against a pale coloured sky. KITT and Michael Knight they clearly weren’t. When the rain is lashing and waves surging, are we sure that autonomous ships won’t have the same kinds of foibles and frailties?
Automation in shipping is not a new concept; indeed over the past decades crew numbers has been reduced as many responsibilities, checks and safety functions are now carried out autonomously.
What we are likely to first see is a change in the relationship between the ship and the OOW. In aviation, the role of the pilot has evolved with each new generation of aircraft, and the levels of flying have shifted between mankind and machine with each new design and development.
Ships have remained resolutely manual in that sense. The courses are calculated, followed, monitored and maintained by the eye, skill, and judgement of the watchkeeper. Yes, technology has encroached – but there is still the encouragement for crew to display good seamanship, to look out of the window and use the “mark 1 eyeball”.
To say that vessels don’t look after themselves is not or course entirely true. While vessels have an autopilot and integrated navigation systems to follow courses, it is actually to the world of Dynamic Positioning (DP) that we probably must look to the future.
Some seafarers of today already possess the skills to control vessels in the ways the future may demand. They are the Dynamic Positioning Operators, or DPOs. They have been around for a while, but interestingly are almost perfect for the roles which will increasingly emerge.
Where equipped, a vessel’s DP system sits as the brain. It has sensors which monitor everything from position to wind, engine power to satellite reliability. They use this to enable them to do as requested by the DPO.
So, already we have the marvellous illustration of how seafarer and machine can work in perfect harmony. The DP system does the amazing processing work, and allocates power in the right direction and degree. While the DPO inputs the desired position or movements, and then acts as an overseer, checking that all appears to be going as it should be.
Perhaps then, the near future will not be autonomous, it will be about how machines learn from skilled and experienced mariners. It will be about how machines win our trust and show that the technology can do what seafarers have been doing successfully for centuries, if not millennia.
What do you think? Will seafarers be a thing of the past, or are there a few more throws of the dice left in the profession? Share your thoughts with us, we’d love to know what you think.