The more we move into an age of technology driving the shipping industry, the less we will need seafarers and the more we will come to rely entirely on IT to keep the ships sailing. Now pick the truth from the fiction in that lot and then decide if a truly autonomous shipping world is what we can expect and, what we really want.

The shipping world struggles with seafarer recruitment and the retention rates are hardly something to write home about: the conditions on board some ships, the long hours; weeks away from family and still in many cases, the lack of communication facilities don’t make for a thoroughly appealing job profile. So what better way of getting around these issues than dropping everything in the lap of technology: after all, isn’t this what we developed and adopted robotic operational equipment for?

We all have our views and mine is that robotic, autonomous, IT-driven and whatever else you want to describe the future of shipping technologies as, are not going to be at the expense of the crew member, the dedicated seafarer or the diligent captain. There is no substitute for a human in shipping when there are so many variables involved. Yes it will come but not in the near future: the vision of autonomous ships passing like computers in the night are still a long way off any coast!

We should still be thinking in terms of how technology can aid, assist and help develop the seafarer. They need new skills: navigation can be easily handled by technology but this is a world of increasing cyber-crime and concerns over hacking are not going to disappear. The real challenges will be in the way systems are integrated with the human element and what sorts of training will be offered to seafarers to cope with these challenges. Sending a ship the wrong way can seem frighteningly easy by hacking the ECDIS according to cyber-security specialists Pen Test Partners, a maritime penetration testing and security specialist company. They recently reported:

“We often find a lack of network segregation on the vessel. Hack the satcom terminal and you’re on the vessel network. ECDIS are the electronic chart systems that are needed to navigate. They can slave directly to the autopilot – most modern vessels are in ‘track control’ mode most of the time, where they follow the ECDIS course. Hack the ECDIS and you may be able to crash the ship, particularly in fog. Younger crews get ‘screen fixated’ all too often, believing the electronic screens instead of looking out of the window.

We tested over 20 different ECDIS units and found all sorts of crazy security flaws. Most ran old operating systems, including one popular in the military that still runs Windows NT! One interesting example had a poorly protected configuration interface. Using this, we could ‘jump’ the boat by spoofing the position of the GPS receiver on the ship. This is not GPS spoofing, this is telling the ECDIS that the GPS receiver is in a different position on the ship. It’s similar to introducing a GPS offset (which we can also do!)”

If ever there was a reason to doubt that seafarers will continue to be an important element in shipping, then reports such as that will be a warning to those still thinking of fully autonomous shipping.

Maybe the way to look at the future seafarer will be in terms of a monitor: working with the on-board systems and relaying issues back to a land base; discussing operational fine-tuning, managing navigational changes and providing an overview of conditions that may be initially beyond technology. The idea of a ‘remote crew’ operating from land is appealing in terms of work environment, costs and accessibility but information sent from vessels is invaluable and the presence of a human on a ship is still going to be needed in the short-term run up to autonomous maritime operations.

Quite probably the issue that will dictate the presence of crew at sea will be in safety and cyber-security: this places the seafarer as the final line of defence and also the most valuable asset – someone to see, understand and relay information to other people back on land. They will also be the protectors of systems from cyber intrusions and this will be important when IT can be used against IT in a cyber-attack. But we should also remember that seafarers will be required for equipment maintenance and repairs of at sea despite the automation of many processes.

Seafarers have often been one of the last things to consider when pulling together a maritime operation. Often poorly trained and lacking decent communication between themselves and owners, many seafarers were (and possibly still are in some regions) as merely there to satisfy regulations and keep the ship on course: “If we can do it with three crew members, then why spend money on five?” The accountants would be delighted to hear that but the industry needs people committed and interested in going to sea!

The age of the robot ship is not far off; the automated vessels of the future are in production and testing, yet the technology and the desire for complete technology-driven operations is not. Seafarers in one form or another will be with us for some time to come and that’s been suggested by leading lights in the maritime world such as Rolls-Royce. Therefore the least we can do is train seafarers to be an integral part of this brave new world.