How smart tech forces the maritime workforce to adapt

As new technology brings change to the maritime industry, so does it bring change to the people who keep it running. As ships move toward using smarter technology, and the industry relies more on digital forms of communication, the industry's workforce must keep up with these changes.

In March, IBM and Promare announced that the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a prototype ship propelled by a combination of solar- and wind-generated power and a diesel generator on board as a backup, would use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and would be completely crewless.  

The ship features an “AI Captain” that would make real-time decisions, course correct and problem-solve, even in sporadic connectivity. All without the need of a crew and all while keeping data safe from cyber threats. For the autonomous ship to do so in any given situation, it cannot rely on GPS and satellite connectivity alone. The AI Captain needs edge computing to be successful at navigating without human intervention by allowing the ship to collect and process data onboard in a compressed fashion and at incredibly high speeds––speed that is crucial for processing and uploading real-time data vital to the ship’s success.

Proponents for a crewless ship maintain that a fully automated ship could prove to be more efficient since it removes the element of human error, which accounts for 75 percent of marine liability losses. However, though a fully automated ship does not need a crew––or at least a much smaller one––the seafarers who make up the crew may need additional training and education.

For starters, seafarers may not have to oversee an AI-run ship but rather become its caretakers, helicoptered in and out only to assist if something were to go wrong on board. Some say that ocean-going vessels cannot be completely crewless because of the broad range of things that could go wrong on the open ocean and that the cost of keeping a crew is only one to five percent of the cost base for a shipping company.

In either case, the kind of training seafarers will need in the coming decades might look different from what they do now as the technology onboard vessels changes. To keep up with the new technologies they have to operate, seafarers will need training specializing in digital and computer operations.

Tools and expertise are needed for current seafarers to adapt to an increasingly digital world. Online learning communities would allow seafarers to download courses locally on their mobile device and complete training without an internet connection. This kind of online training will help seafarers adapt quickly to the tools and technology they will use in the coming years.

Due to the rise in digitalization, seafarers are not the only ones who have to adapt. As ports and ships become more reliant on advanced technology, it isn't surprising that people with computer science or engineering experience may find a wider range of career opportunities in the marine industry.

There is no doubt that the technology used in the industry is changing, and there is hope that new and innovative tech will help us meet the challenges climate change and pollution present to us. However, to do so, the industry needs people with the required knowledge to help create, adapt and repair the technology required to meet those challenges.

Although their roles may change, and they will need new skills to meet new demands, seafarers are integral to the industry. Workforce development is key to bringing in new seafarers and meeting the industry’s needs. That is why youth education is so critical, and maritime academies and programs like MPSEC are so important. They allow future seafarers to develop the skills and have the tools they need for the future and, in turn, make the future a brighter place for the industry as well. 

One thing is certain: if autonomous ships are to become a part of the maritime industry's future, those who program the vessels will need the expertise and knowledge of current seafarers to make "AI Captains" anywhere as close to capable as human ones.


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