17 Jun 2019 - Emma Mark
The influx of new technology over the last ten years into the maritime industry has been at times, quite overwhelming. The days of using a paper chart, a sextant and a pair of dividers seem like a lifetime ago when things were much simpler, there was no risk of cyber threats, no dirty USBs to worry about, and no back-up systems to install. Mariners used their inherited knowledge and skills handed down from master to master and spent a lot more time looking out of the window rather than at a computer screen.
Whilst there is no doubt that the skills are learnt at prestigious maritime colleges such as Warsash are incredibly important, there is now so much more for our PlayStation generation seafarers to master. The introduction of raster charts overtook paper, and then of course came vector charts alongside ECDIS and the bar was raised even higher. Talk to any mariner of a certain age and they’ll tell you that you still can’t beat a paper chart, the look, the feel and most importantly, the reliability of it are something that is seen by many as irreplaceable.
But as we progress deeper into the age of digitalisation, are we losing those basic maritime skills, particularly when it comes to looking out of the window, are we relying too much on machines and technology to tell us what to do and how will this end up affecting us in the future?
Ignoring the warning signs
We’re all a bit guilty of this, how many times have you completely dismissed the flashing petrol light in your car telling you to fill up. You’re convinced there’s a secret stash of fuel in the tank for just such an occasion so you power on through and are gobsmacked when the car stops in the middle of the road! There are a thousand examples of when we ignore the warning signs. Now, imagine having hundreds of flashing lights, alerts and alarms on your ECDIS. You know the route like the back of your hand so you turn the alarm off, or maybe you just think it is being over cautious so you ignore them and, God forbid, you have an incident. An incident that could have, and should have, been prevented.
So where does the fault lie? Is it the ECDIS too complicated, is it lack of training, or simply human error? And this isn’t something that occured when ECDIS was first introduced, these incidents are still happening today, albeit slightly less so.
Who needs education?
Having talked to various fleet managers over the years about crew training, there is a small contingent that, rightly or wrongly, are against implementing digital solutions onboard. Their reasoning is that many of the crew onboard are transient, or agency based or from poor educational backgrounds and so they have to ask themselves, do we really want to trust them with new technology? This is the same crew are trusted with navigating a multi million pound vessel, plus the countless millions of pounds worth of cargo onboard, much of which, if improperly managed, could have a catastrophic environmental impact. How’s that for irony?
But these fleet managers have a point. If the crews are already struggling with the mandatory technology onboard, or at least not using it to its greatest potential, why implement further solutions that will only confuse matters? In an ideal world, all new tech onboard would be so intuitive that a small child could pick it up and understand it. But we work in a complex industry and whilst there are thousands of seafarers, it’s unfair to compare the simplicity of say, an iPhone, to an integrated bridge system which is why we can never expect new technology to be that simple.
Man vs Automation
Here’s the thing, there is a very real risk of technology overtaking the role of the more unskilled seafarer, particularly given the ongoing push for automated vessels in certain sectors. So where does that leave these men and women that have spent their entire working lives onboard, is the shipping company going to train and upskill them, find them other roles that are shore based? Call me a cynic but I’m going to say it’s highly unlikely. The whole reason behind automation is to increase efficiency, minimise human error and ultimately reduce costs. So why spend money on training courses for staff, continue to pay their salaries and benefits when the reality is, you’re going to get rid of them anyway?
We only have to look at the introduction of robotics automotive industry in the 80’s to see how that panned out, and I think it’s safe to say the machines won. In the last twelve months alone, Honda, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover have all announced further job cuts. Furthermore, if automated cars really do become a reality the UK workforce alone could be set to lose 1.2 million driving based jobs from its economy.
One can only hazard a guess as to how many men and women in the shipping industry would be out of work if technology really does start to overtake.
So what’s the answer?
Personally, I think as an industry that is rapidly embracing technology and all the benefits it brings, we have a responsibility to make that technology as easy to understand as possible. Okay, we’re never going to be Apple or any of the other hundreds of plug and play variety but can we cut the crap and stop pretending that everyone understands every new idea that comes into the market. Most of us have a basic understanding of what blockchain is but that doesn’t mean we know how to make it work for us. And why should we? We’re not all MIT graduates, we’re mariners, or in my case, not even that. The key to successful implementation of any new product or service is to explain what it is, why it’s good, how it works for you and how to get started with it.
Only by sharing our knowledge and understanding how technology can benefit us as both individuals and companies, can we start to make real progress.