Digitalization on the way for shipping: Are we ready?

Digitalization on the way for shipping: Are we ready?

Do you think the entire shipping industry will be completely digitalized by 2025? is the question posed by SAFETY4SEA, in our latest online poll in which the majority of our readers (63%) answered negatively, although the industry has recently witnessed a number of innovative and disruptive technologies.

Big Data and ECDIS were the technologies that began the digitalization transformation and now autonomous shipping will define industry’s future. In this article, we take a look at where we stand with respect to autonomous operations and digitalization of shipping while we address key challenges that the industry needs to tackle accordingly.

Regulation lags behind?

Current international shipping law requires ocean-going vessels to be properly crewed, so fully autonomous, unmanned ships aren’t allowed in international waters. However, since 2017, the international shipping regulator has been considering changing the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to allow ships with no captain or crew to operate.

Besides, the recent IMO MSC 100 approved the framework and methodology for the regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). Provisional principles for the development of guidelines on MASS trials, are being discussed such as:

– ensuring that such guidelines should be generic and goal-based

– taking a precautionary approach to ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of MASS.

Interested parties will submit proposals to the next session of the Committee, taking into account the above mentioned principles.

Where we stand

We read recently that the 12-meter-long autonomous ship ‘Maxlimer’ is set to set sail from Canada in an attempt of the world’s first transatlantic voyage without a crew.

Unmanned ships are presently used predominantly by the marine scientific research communities and/or the defence field with today’s unmanned ships being comparatively modest in size, rarely extending beyond 15-20m in length.

Of course containers carriers and passenger liners continue innovating in order to keep up with the increasing expectations from end users, charterers, regulators and society at large by making the best use of:

  • sensors
  • data analysis
  • advances in satellite communications
  • advances in antenna technology
  • digitalization of information flows
  • automation of existing processes and functions

The fltet of the future will continually communicate with its managers and perhaps even with a “traffic control” system that is monitoring vessel positions, manoeuvres and speeds, according to Remi Eriksen, Group President and CEO DNV GL

Indeed, data sharing is happening, however the emerging challenges are not providing the right contexts for entire shipping to be digitalized.

Digitalization of shipping: 4 Key Challenges

  1. Fear of the unknown

Adapting innovative and disruptive technology brings the so-called fear of the unknown with respect to the risks ahead. Besides, a lot of people argue that risk in shipping will remain the same with the only difference being that the risk of human error is transferred onshore to a remote control centre.

  1. Trust

Trust, here, takes two different forms: Seafarers trust to autonomy and; trust to information sharing on platforms as it affects the transactions’ transparency. Of course trust is not gained overnight and in this regard, crew training is necessary. As far as it concerns transparency, smart technologies are already facilitating industry’s operations. The opportunities to harness digital technologies to enable more sustainable shipping are everywhere only if stakeholders encourage and support innovations that allow transparency. For example, blockchain has become the new mainstream in all businesses and maritime sector as well, brining much visibility and efficiency into shipping and logistics.

  1. Crew training

Combining maritime and digital skills is the way to go. Automation doesn’t mean unmanned; on-hand skills are still necessary. However, only with a combination of new skills, seafarers will continuously build their competence on technical and commercial capabilities within the digital sphere. The whole industry is now called to ensure the appropriate level of training. Therefore, competent and highly skilled seafarers are needed to monitor and guide vessels using AI or the machine learning. Although ship operators are aiming to remove crew completely from the ships and save operational expenses, they will still be in need of remote crew.

  1. Cyber Threat

A completely digitalized shipping means great reliance on IT, software and communications systems which, of course, elevate cyber risk; from modernized hulls to electrical systems onboard, including sensors and networks to monitor performance and enable proactive maintenance. The same sensors however could let cyber attacker to disable or gain control of steerage or propulsion.

“We should not become completely reliable on technology, since the threat of cyber incidents and attacks is real,” Ralf Nagel, Chief Executive Officer, German Shipowners’ Association has stated in our SeaSense Column.

Above all, the major challenge for the shipping industry towards digitalization would be the right mindset. Since, several stakeholders are still stuck in their traditional way of doing things, changing perspective is vital for adopting to new reality and accelerating in the digital sphere.