Category: Maritime Technology

2058: A Digital Voyage - Captain VS Parani, FNI, FICS, CMarTech-IMarEST

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Image Courtesy: Capt. VS Parani

Digital Wave. Yes, that’s the name of the ship I work on. After all, it’s the year 2058 and ship-owners are naming ships after all things digital. 

We’re on a voyage from Mombasa to Qingdao carrying a cargo of maize. This is our regular run and the ship is on a long-term charter to a Chinese trading house. Our 90,000-tonne deadweight ship runs on hydrogen powered fuel-cells. 

My thoughts are interrupted by an alarm from SX, our navigation console. Just like the sextant which guided navigators with stars, the SX is the digital-brain of the ship which guides the ship using satellites and earth-based sensors. The SX SatScreen has identified a fishing boat on our path. The satellite imaging cannot determine the course of the fishing boat and is not certain if there are fishing nets that could foul our propeller. Our automated lookout camera has picked up some visual and thermal images but has called me for my assessment of the situation.

It’s one of the few times, that the SX has asked me to intervene in open sea. I look through my rangefinder and see it’s indeed a small fishing boat. I try to check if the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of the boat is switched on, or if they respond on the radio. Nothing. We do occasionally encounter boats like these which fish ‘under-cover’ to avoid taxes. In today’s world, all man-made floating objects are required to have an AIS; I am obliged to report such sightings to the IMO database. I record an image of the boat on the rangefinder - enter the coordinates at which I spotted the boat and transmit my sighting to the IMO database. From there, this is relayed to all ships which are in the vicinity so that their presence is registered with their respective SX.

We need a course alteration to avoid the boat but based on my rangefinder feed, SX has already calculated the alteration. A ‘confirm’ light flashes on the screen. I tap ‘agree’ on the control console touch-pad. If I hadn’t responded within 60 seconds, SX would have initiated the course alteration anyway.

Usually on long voyages like this, the ship is usually on auto-pilot with no need for any person to stand watch. Radars, charts, sea-bed beacons, shore-beacons, wave-sensors, Global Positioning System (GPS), echo-sounders, satellite images and feeds, all feed into the SX ship-processor and of course, the SX base-station in Kazakhstan. I’ve worked rotations at the SX base-station in Aktobe a few times. It’s an enormous complex whose rooftop is covered with various antennae. Over a thousand professionals work here and they receive an endless stream of data from each of their nominated ships. There are hundreds of control rooms where the SX operator sits in front of multiple screens monitoring for anything that the SX Artificial Intelligence (AI) may not have picked up. 

The base station is required as we are only a team of three on-board. We’re equal in rank though we do have our specialization. Over the years, the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) has been replaced by the Vessel Operator Skill Set (VOSS). The Skill Sets are numbered A to M and each ship needs to have operators who combine these skill sets, with some overlap. We have it between the three of us. I am certified for more navigation skills than my colleagues who specialize in fuel-cells and robotics. Each day, we spend 15 minutes in the virtual-reality simulator where we are tested on at least one skill set- that keeps us sharp.

Another thing which keeps us sharp, are our smart-suits. The smart suits monitor our vitals and pass these on as well to the SX. Any abnormal rise in, say our exertion would bring back ‘gentle’ queries first from the SX, and then from the base-station. These also tell me what I should have for lunch, and how much I should exercise, as it looks like I’ve been putting on some weight from the food prepared by our robotic chef. I go out on deck for a brisk walk. I make sure I don’t disturb the maintenance drones working on deck. They have their inbuilt lasers to remove rust and special paint to coat it after. My other colleague is an expert on programming where drones need to work.

I return to the accommodation only to be welcomed by a call from the SX base station. Thankfully it’s a human voice. She says ‘We need to run a diagnostic on the fuel-cell membranes’. Just wanted you to know’. Our shipboard propulsion expert gives the go-ahead and then glues himself to the ship’s control centre as the check is carried out.

Later that evening, we approach port. The Qingdao port control gives us the track code. They have sensors on the seabed which the SX locks on to. These sensors provide the feedback on the course and speed to steer through the entrance channel which the Digital Wave does with ease. My two colleagues and I monitor the progress of the manoeuvre. We can over-ride the sensors if need be but this is rarely required; there are experienced pilots sitting in the port control room who have access to our SX and can monitor our ship’s progress real-time. Just like the last time, the magnetic clamps bring the ship safely alongside the berth.
Thankfully, all the paperwork for the cargo is automated, using blockchain technology and electronic documentation. 

The cargo operations start. The vacuum unloaders have started working. Almost fully-enclosed holds with automated atmosphere control means there is less chance of cargo damage. The stability control console adjusts the draught and list of the ship. I take turns with my colleague in monitoring the cargo operations. Once the cargo is completed, shore gangs and robots clean the hold. They then load the ship with containers full of electronic goods, toys and farm equipment.

We are now ready to sail back towards Africa. While we wait for the track number to leave port, I make us some tea, the old-fashioned way- on a kettle.
Post-Script: Time-travel back to 2018: We are on the throes of the digital revolution- already being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Many of these technologies in our 2058 voyage are already being developed and will be implemented in stages. As maritime professionals, we have not only to be ready, we’ve to lead the change. Let’s ride the Digital Wave.

Captain VS Parani is the author of Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, the world’s first book on leadership for mariners, by a merchant-mariner. He can be reached at parani.org.

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