Category: Point of view

The Future of Technology in the Maritime Industry - Capt. Ninad Sharad Mhatre


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Image Courtesy: Capt. Mhatre shares his views on the digitalisation journey the maritime sector is embarking on

The Maritime industry has come a long way in its attitude towards accepting the use of emerging technology. Historically a reactive industry, rather than a proactive one, the industry has been known to adopt changes only when forced to do so – for example, in reaction to accidents (as corrective action). When faced with challenges in manning and drop in competency levels, and with majority of maritime accidents being attributed to human error, the industry has been forced to look at other alternatives for solutions to overcome human error. 

At such a time, technology provides a backup safety net, to mitigate the risk of human failures. The initial fears of machines taking over the jobs of humans have now been replaced with the acceptance that machines are better than humans at performing routine and repetitive tasks, and will actually help to improve safety  of seafarers. Application of emerging technology on ships is increasing, which could see the maritime industry not only catching up with the aviation industry but perhaps even surpassing it – unthinkable just a few years ago.

Modern marine engines and machinery already have a high degree of automation, having taken over the manual checks and monitoring tasks previously performed by humans. Automation is bound to increase, with increased complexity of equipment, and faster interactivity of relays, pumps, sensors, and actuators, with the margins for errors in these processes becoming narrower. Humans cannot match the speed or accuracy required for such machine interaction. Each new accident causes machinery designers and regulators to seek answers from emerging technology to provide safeguards against such incidents.

The use of mass flow meters, data loggers and data analytics will rise, becoming the preferred way of fuel management. This type of equipment enables higher a frequency of data sampling and provides a far more accurate gauging of fuel consumption, as compared to manual gauging done by sea-staff. Along with on-line satellite tracking of vessels, Charterers and Operators can monitor vessel performance in real time and capture even minor deviations. Flag States will be using satellite tracking to monitor emissions from ships and to identify offenders for prosecution. There will be no escape for violators in the future.

It will not be long before concepts like VR and AR are incorporated into onboard training as well operations, to provide seafarers with additional tools and guidance to augment their knowledge, without having to refer to user manuals. Navigation systems will continue to become more accurate and sensitive, to provide the navigator with all necessary information to take correct decisions during execution of the sea passage, but particularly when navigating through heavy traffic areas. Smart ports are engaged in projects using IoT concepts, to facilitate seamless exchange of information, and enable perfect coordination between vessels, terminals, pilots, and VTIS, to enhance safety and eliminate navigational incidents like collisions/allisions occurring in dense traffic areas.

In the coming days, increasing amounts of data from various sources will be directly streamed to shore centres for storage and analysis when required. Onboard sensors measuring different parameters will capture minute abnormalities which would otherwise escape human detection, and thus enable corrective actions before matters deteriorate to major breakdowns. This will lead to more focus on Predictive Analysis, to get a lead warning on potential breakdowns – offering massive savings for Owners and insurers.

This growing complexity of machinery and automation will spawn more shore support centres from machinery makers providing the ability for remote-access and troubleshooting services for propulsion and power-generating machinery on board. This could progress smoothly in future, to the same machinery being controlled from a shore support centre, largely without human intervention – leading to the advent of unmanned vessels, which are already being built and will continue to grow.
Data generation will increase, and so will the need for data accuracy.  Stakeholders will require and demand better ways to collect, store and analyse data. To enable this, it will become more important to limit the costs of data transfer, and people will turn increasingly to high-throughput satellite communications combined with unlimited data packages at a capped cost, to control their communications expenses.

Internet access for crew has become a regular benefit offered by many shipping companies, and is being welcomed by seafarers. Not only does it provide seafarers with the ability to keep in closer touch with their families using social media platforms, and carry out internet banking, but it also enables them to get access to official web portals such as Class portals, thus enabling them to carry out tasks which were typically required to be done only by shore staff. This empowerment of sea-staff will help them to take ownership of managing the vessel’s surveys, certificate renewals, etc., and enable vessels to enter their vessel information directly into the company’s ERP in-house management systems, thus avoiding wasteful communications and achieving tremendous savings in man-hours that used to be spent in clerical data entry by shore staff.  

The sophistication of new technology and automation is steadily increasing and will continue to grow until a stage where it will be outside the core competencies of navigators or engineers. Innovations in technology will thus drive the creation of different skill-sets among seafarers and shore support staff. Training needs will require to be re-analysed, and new types of jobs will be created. Forward-looking management will see these trends and change their organisations to deal with this technological wave, to stay relevant and competitive.

The reluctance to adopt new technological advances is usually the associated costs – however, where such initiatives achieve loss prevention, such costs will gradually become more acceptable.  In the olden days, technical innovations in other industries such as the automobile or aviation industry were never transferred to the maritime industry. Today however, the tables appear to be turning, and we see more main-stream technical advances finding maritime applications. Today, shipping companies are entering into alliances with IT companies and through this collaboration, coming up with innovative solutions which will benefit both the maritime industry and the people who work in it. The coming years will see the hesitancy of the maritime industry changing into the decisive implementation of new technology, because, quite simply put, it will be the right thing to do, for improving the efficiency and safety of vessels, and enhancing the lives of seafarers.

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