The positive impact of maritime digitalisation on crews

Digital technologies are increasingly affecting the way ships are operated. They bring greater efficiency, increased safety, and improved sustainability to fleets. But how does digital technology impact the crew?

The maritime industry continues its transformation towards a cleaner and brighter future. Improved efficiencies are rapidly being introduced that reduce emissions and raise the chances of the IMO’s decarbonisation targets being reached. By operating more efficiently – both at sea and in the shoreside office, costs are reduced and competitivity increased. Driving this trend is the adoption of digital technologies.

Shipping is one of the world’s oldest industries, and one with a rather conservative outlook. The tendency has always been to view new innovations with a degree of skepticism. Nevertheless, progress has continued, and we have witnessed the change from sail to steam to diesel engines, and in increasing numbers on to LNG. Future fuels, such as ammonia, methanol and perhaps hydrogen are also very much on the horizon. We have seen too the difference that containerization made to the efficient transportation of goods when it was introduced in the 1960s.

Despite this progress, when digitalisation was first introduced to the sector some 20 plus years ago, it raised doubts about the capability of ships’ crews to cope with such highly technical solutions.

Overcoming the doubts

In general, however, shipping is becoming more and more comfortable with digital solutions. The introduction of chart plotters in the 90’s marked the first real move towards digital technology, enabled by the widespread adoption of GPS in the 80’s. ECDIS standards were later introduced in 1995, and since then, digital solutions have delivered benefit after benefit to the industry. Today’s advanced monitoring and information systems have been made possible by digitalisation, and they continue to make shipping safer, more efficient, and increasingly cost-effective. Such value-adding benefits are proving a major driver for overcoming any remaining doubts regarding this technology.

Initially, there was a wariness of the reliability of digital technology used aboard, mainly due to a fear of blackouts, and concerns about the accuracy of data. In terms of training for deck officers, there remains a persistent attitude of keeping one eye over your shoulder, to ensure that traditional mariner skillsets could be called upon in case digital technology fails while out at sea. Morse code was only recently dropped from the curricula of most maritime academies and all junior officers are still trained to use a sextant and do manual position fix calculations from star sights.

Sextants are a navigational instrument used to determine latitude and longitude at sea by measuring angular distances, especially the altitudes of sun, moon, and stars. They date back to the 18th century.

There has also been a certain amount of fear among some seafarer organisations that digital technology would reduce the number of crew needed. While crew sizes have shrunk over the last several decades, this has largely been due to a desire to cut costs as the maritime industry became more focused on profit margins. The correlation between digital technology and reduction in crew is certainly not direct.

The fact is that digitalisation helps rather than complicates onboard operations, and aids rather than replaces onboard manpower.

Assessing the Benefits

Of course, training is required for seafarers to understand and stay up to date on the latest digital technology and solutions available. This is a given and is true for any change to the way ships are operated or controlled. But let’s look at where digitalisation has a really positive impact on both shoreside teams and shipboard crews.

We could start with voyage planning. Determining the best route for getting your vessels to their destinations as quickly, safely, and as cost-effectively as possible can be a complex and time-consuming task. So many variables need to be assessed; the weather, tides, the environmental regulations likely to be encountered, port requirements, any NavArea warnings or alerts issued, the scheduling requirements and, of course, the anticipated fuel costs.

Digital solutions, such as OneOcean’s PassageManager for example, can handle all these tasks in a matter of minutes. This greatly eases the workload. But more than that, the technology ensures that the route selected is the best one possible, from all points of view, including cost, safety and compliance. The system also provides data to enhance decision-making, allowing mariners to better react to unexpected situations, a sudden storm for instance, to offer the best alternative route. In other words, the decision-making for the crew is made far, far easier.

In general, the ability to view and analyse data in context is a tremendous help to ship crews. A prime example is the way this assists with record book entries. Paper record books come in different formats and are used to store all kinds of information regarding a ship’s operations. Completing these records and keeping them continually up to date is a task that requires time and care. If information is missing, the Port State Control inspection of the ship is likely to fail, with all the resultant delays, fines and extra work being the unfortunate outcome.

Digital solutions, on the other hand, can help ensure that record book entries are completed with accuracy and ease. The entries are standardised and completed in a consistent format. The risk of accidental omissions and errors is almost removed, and life becomes that much easier for the crew who spend less time filling in paperwork.

A similar situation exists with the extensive documentation needed for safety management system (SMS) compliance. Handling all this paperwork manually and making sure the data is entered correctly is a demanding task. How much easier it is to have a digital solution taking care of all ship-to-shore document exchange and administration. The crew can concentrate on operational priorities instead.

The same is true for staying abreast of the myriad of global, regional and local rules and regulations. The regulatory seascape is increasingly becoming a jigsaw puzzle of local and international environmental regulations. Often, the crew does not have access to countries’ baseline information or may find it onerous to locate national regulations, which makes it easy to fall afoul of them and be subject to fines, detentions or even prison time.

To stay compliant at all times, decision makers aboard need to know precisely what the regulations are, and when and where they apply. An advanced digital solution, such as OneOcean’s EnviroManager and Regs4ships, can provide this information, reducing the risk of costly mistakes being made.

All industries should strive towards progress and the maritime industry is no exception. If commercial maritime operators want to continue sailing towards greater efficiencies, increased environmental sustainability and lower operating costs, digital technology must be part of the equation.

12 January 2023