Navigating the next decade

A sustainable shipping industry requires the marriage of safety and technology, combining human skills with true aids to navigation, writes James Collett, Sperry Marine.

For all the talk of paradigm shifts in shipping, it took a physical event rather than a digital innovation to demonstrate what disruption really looks like. All the processing power in the world is of little use if you cannot get cargo or spare parts from one end of the supply chain to the other.

The Coronavirus has demonstrated many things to the shipping industry, principally that it is very easy to make plans for the future and not have them survive first contact with an unforeseen enemy.

The last six months have obviously been a period of disruption, adjustment and recalibration across the industry. As we start moving forward again, the industry’s relationship to digitalisation needs to take into account the ‘knowns’ while being flexible enough to cope with the ‘unknowns’ too.

For example, it was possible to predict a growth in the use of technology onboard ship, but not that we would see thousands of exhausted seafarers still onboard months after their contracts were finished with seemingly no solution in sight. We should have been able to do better.

Perhaps the central conclusion of the crisis is that it highlights the critical need to design technology so that it aligns with human skills and produces a result greater than the sum of its parts. This is important when we consider the scale of the challenges ahead.

Industry Trends

What we can see now is that the ‘new normal’ looks like a very uncertain place.

How ‘V-shaped’ the shipping market’s recovery turns out to be remains to be seen. Certainly, the newbuilding market will be challenged for some time to come as owners adjust capacity to suit a reduced demand scenario. Both owners of existing ships and those looking to design a new generation of vessels must take account of other risks in the business landscape too.

Whatever one’s personal view on the issue of climate change, the maritime decarbonisation agenda is on the march – and the deadlines are short compared to the average life of a ship. The details are not yet adopted but they include an efficiency benchmark for existing vessels, to be followed by reductions in GHG emissions and carbon intensity unlike any previous measures.

Clearly there are a lot of efficiency gains to be made over the lifecycle of the ship and in particular in terms of its operating profile, voyage and fuel efficiency, port call integration and ship-shore co-ordination. Much of the savings will be driven by physical changes but the digital element will be crucial to data gathering, decision support and intervention.

Even as the demands for greater efficiency increase the scope of digital operations, we should remind ourselves that the height of the Coronavirus witnessed another unpalatable statistic; a peak in cyberattacks on shipping (and a wider increase in digital scams and criminal activity).

Here, action is coming. Shipping companies will need to address cyber security under the ISM Code in order to meet ‘IMO2021’ regulations with which all ships must comply. The amendment to the ISM Code requires operators to have addressed cyber security in their Safety Management Systems, in particular the extent to which hardware and software are up to date and they can demonstrate they have a cyber resilience plan in place.

Technology Changes

With this pipeline of challenges, there is little doubt that digital will be critical to shipping’s future but this is a story that needs to be understood in context of safety and particularly the human-machine interface.

There are many proposed pathways towards smarter shipping, including greater use of automation and increasing the deployment of connectivity and processing power to ‘the edge’ on the ship and ultimately, some degree of autonomy.

What the last six months has demonstrated beyond doubt is that before we get to that end point, we can achieve a lot of what we need using remote access for inspection and verification trouble shooting and problem solving. The remote business model has arrived in shipping and it’s a trend we have to embrace but it doesn’t mean that humans are out of the loop.

That ships kept moving when businesses were in lockdown brings its own challenges. The essential supply of spare parts has continued but not every ship in the global fleet can be sailing at its full potential or efficiency, with short- and long-term implications.

There have been warnings (from among others, insurer Allianz) about the impact of the Coronavirus on service routines and equipment health combined with overworked crews stranded on ships. The potential risk to safety is large when the majority of accidents still have their roots in human error.

The interaction of man and machine will remain critical to safe and sustainable operations in the coming decade. The defining process will be to make that relationship a workable one; tasks and actions that have little value for humans should be automated and those where human skills and knowledge will always be superior should see technology support the decision process not supersede it.

The Right Tools

In all of this, safety of navigation remains fundamental to OEMs and owners alike. We believe that by combining human skills and training with genuine aids to navigation the industry can integrate safety and technology in a way that makes sense for users.

This means making digital technology relevant to vessel operators and navigators alike, improving access to the data that can contribute to safety and efficiency.

Securely connecting front and back of bridge will enable the kind of voyage optimisation that will be crucial for greater efficiency and will also ensure that mariners have the latest and most accurate information they need to sail safely.

The front of the bridge is becoming an increasingly streamlined workspace that supports the remote working model, with shoreside teams given access to systems for operational support and troubleshooting.

We know too that the majority of accidents don’t occur out at sea, but instead in confined waters, channels and fairways, basins and harbours. As vessels increase in size, navigators need to consider how to support safer manoeuvring for the world’s biggest ships using mobile devices that provide situational awareness on and off the bridge.

Navigators and shore teams alike can augment their awareness with real time video feeds when turning or berthing, making the process safer and potentially saving millions of dollars in repair costs.

This vision for the industry combines products and services, digitalising bridge components and bringing in non-standard technology, enabling the network effect for greater data sharing.

We should remember that even as we adapt to the ‘COVID-normal’, digital transformation is a process that we are closer to the start of than the end.

We may have seen a pause but we’re unlikely to see a major slowdown in the progress made so far; the external factors of safety, efficiency and sustainability will continue to drive us in the same direction.

The work still to be done to safely achieve these gains and savings makes it essential to have a strategy and a roadmap. The industry needs leaders and shapers more than ever in the next decade and beyond.

Share this story

About the Author

Picture of James Collett
James Collett

James Collett is Managing Director at Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine, a provider of navigation technology systems to the maritime sector. You can find him on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Further Reading

News Archive