The master mariner of the future

Shipping employment

Andrew Linington considers the future of ‘the human element’ in ever more technology-dependent shipping, and the need for new skillsets and training

‘Smart’ ships, ‘robo-boats’, autonomous vessels – call them what you will, but there can be no doubt that the relentless march of technology is transforming shipping and, with it, the seafaring profession.

Few areas of society have been untouched by the digital revolution, and for the maritime industry the ensuing changes are set to be as dramatic and disruptive as the move from sail to steam in the nineteenth century.

The shape of things to come? A concept illustration of an autonomous container ship, from Kongsberg Maritime.
The shape of things to come? A concept illustration of an autonomous container ship, from Kongsberg Maritime.

As shipping companies transition towards automation and remote control, with cloud based support systems and shore-based fleet operations centres, there is a growing debate over the role of humans within the rosy visions of the crewless future promoted by many equipment manufacturers.

The increasing oversight of ships from shore is already enabling such practices as sophisticated predictive maintenance and monitoring of fuel consumption and routes, and is in turn reshaping the nature of the interactions between ships, ports, vessel traffic services and other authorities ashore.

In turn, these changes are also transforming the traditional positions of the shipmaster and other senior staff on board. The roles and responsibilities of the ship-based operator and the shore-based operator are increasingly blurred and the legal liabilities are alarmingly untested.

However, despite the rapid advances in technology and connectivity there is still a fairly broad industry consensus that seafarers will continue to be required for some considerable time to come. As the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System demonstrated in the 1980s, although new technology may make some jobs (such as the radio officer) outmoded it will introduce requirements for new positions such as the electrotechnical officer.

There is therefore much talk about the need for a different seafarer skillset – the ‘e-farer’ perhaps – matching new demands for increased system monitoring and analysis, as well as high-level decision making, technical literacy, quantitative reasoning and problem solving.

As the training company Videotel notes: ‘With rapid changes in technology come ever more rapid changes in technology. So, seafarers will need to be adept at understanding how things work, not just what they do.’

But in a sector where ‘the human element’ is commonly cited as the cause of around 85 per cent of accidents, the interaction between crew members and components – complex software intensive systems in particular – will need to be treated much more seriously than before.

While artificial intelligence and ‘intelligent awareness’ systems using Lidar, sensors and cameras to provide real-time advice to seafarers are being introduced on ships, accident investigators continue to highlight shortfalls in training on electronic chart display and information systems that continue to exist even a couple of decades after their introduction.

It has been suggested that shipping should look to aviation for ideas on how to better integrate the human–machine interface and to address the dangers of degraded manual skills, ineffective monitoring, incorrect situational awareness, and over-reliance on technology. Videotel suggest that ‘the best Dynamic Positioning Operators provide a vision of how humans can retain the operational control, vision and experience to work in tandem with technology. People are likely not to be driving the ship but driving the systems which drive the ship’.

Training will need to be updated

Screenshot from a modern situational awareness system
Screenshot from a modern situational awareness system, showing the distance and time to the ‘Closest Point of Approach’ to another vessel moving on a similar bearing, as well as a warning of the proximity of a small vessel and coastal shallows. Photo: Kongsberg Maritime

A number of initiatives have been launched in an attempt to address these issues and to ensure that the cadets being trained today are given the skills they need for the future. These reviews are having to confront the challenge of how to ensure that those directing ships from the shore have the necessary experience and expertise to prevent the traditional skills of navigation and collision avoidance from being dangerously diluted. As one recent report warned: ‘An effective transfer of knowledge of shipboard operations and expertise needs to be assured if the present position of EU maritime industry is to be maintained.’

Research conducted as part of the European Union’s SkillSea project – which is investigating ways to future-proof seafarer training to take account of new environmental regulations and rapid advances in technology, digitalisation and automation – has gathered the views of those at the sharp end.

With the International Maritime Organization starting work on a much-needed overhaul of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention, the SkillSea project secured feedback from more than 1,600 maritime professionals – 1,149 seafarers and 474 shore-based personnel – which revealed that more than 50 per cent of seafarers believe important topics are missing from the present convention. About 30 per cent consider that current training is ‘overburdened with obsolete knowledge’.

The biggest gaps between current training and actual functional needs were identified as maintenance (reported by 47 per cent of all respondents) and electrical, electronic and control engineering (40 per cent). Almost 25 per cent said that current training standards for navigation fell short, and 20 per cent said that competencies for radiocommunications are not in line with actual onboard needs.

The survey showed a strong appetite amongst seafarers for more training in such areas as: creative thinking and problem solving (62 per cent); familiarity with digital technologies, including cyber-security (61 per cent); teamwork and inter-personal relations (55 per cent); and subjects related to maritime law, insurance and P&I coverage (54 per cent).

Shore-based staff also expressed concerns about STCW not addressing competencies for those working in fleet operations centres, and also identified some of the skills that will be increasingly important over the next decade, including teamworking, software use, and communications.

The speed of change is such that seafarers increasingly need to display adaptability and flexibility, building on a long tradition of learning and self-development to enhance their skills in line with new demands. This is underlined in the 2019 World Maritime University’s Global Maritime Training Insights Database (MarTID) Training Practices Report. This found that the skills seafarers see as most important in this brave new world revolve around the need to understand complex control systems and their capabilities and limitations, to deal with technological glitches, and to have leadership and collaborative decision-making in human-machine teams.

Other factors

While technology is a major driver, many other factors are reshaping the maritime profession and its training needs. The increasing demand for environment-friendly shipping operations – with new fuels and new propulsion methods, as well as potentially huge legal liabilities for seafarers breaching regulatory requirements – is one example.

Cyber-security is another, as some shipping companies have found to their cost. The vulnerability of the maritime sector to cyber-attack is increasing in line with the growing reliance upon technology and the use of devices with varied protocols and standards for joining a network. While the International Association of Classification Societies has identified the critical role of the human element in an interconnected system, cyber-security training for seafarers is lagging far behind.

Similarly, in a multi-cultural and globalised industry with an increased awareness of the importance of the wellbeing of its personnel, the need for smarter training in interpersonal, leadership, communications, social and ‘soft management’ skills has become more acute.

These demands present huge challenges not just for seafarers, but also for employers and for maritime education and training institutions. Colleges and universities have to reform not only the curriculum but also their educational technology and training methods, with a need for costly investment in simulators, virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as other emerging technologies. The Covid-19 crisis may well prove to be a catalyst for change in this area, prompting a very rapid increase in the scope of online e-learning.

Finding suitable personnel

Remote operation of shipping.
Remote operation of shipping. Photo: Kongsberg Maritime

What is easier to predict is that the maritime sector will continue to need people – and good people at that. For a safety-critical industry that has long had a ‘feast or famine’ record on employment, it will have to compete increasingly harder to recruit and retain the smart people it needs for smart ships.

The European shipowners’ body, ECSA, suggests this may not be a bad thing. ‘The developments of increasing digitalisation and automation may offer different and improved job opportunities for the modern seafarers, as instead of staying at sea for months, they can have a job on shore,’ it notes. ‘New kinds of jobs on shore might also give women more opportunities to pursue a career in the shipping industry.’

The UK government is also facing up to the future, with its Maritime 2050 policy package promising: ‘Future UK seafarers will be expected to transition easily between sea and shore-based roles, using transferable IT-based skills, and continuing professional development that allows them to update skills in line with technological advances. Increasingly, maritime roles will likely have highly specialised elements and where science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills will come to the fore.’

Ministers are backing this vision with the creation of the Maritime Skills Commission – a panel of experts who will regularly report on the industry’s existing and evolving training needs.

Just as the move from sail to steam created a new type of seafarer, so the latest industrial revolution is developing a demand for a wholly different maritime professional. Yet, as recent GPS problems have demonstrated, the need for a continued fundamental understanding of seamanship principles may prove vital when connectivity is lost.

Andrew Linington is former Director of Communications of Nautilus International; he retired in 2019 after serving over more than 40 years as editor of the Nautilus Telegraph.