The seafarer of the future

Captain Pradeep Chawla, chairman of GlobalMET, the association of maritime education and training providers, and managing director of QHSE and training at Anglo-Eastern Ship Management, discusses the short and long term implications of autonomous ships.

Autonomous ships are buzzwords of the industry. The conversations have shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when’. Self-driving cars and the successful use of remote controlled drones have stirred the expectations of the maritime world.

The estimates for ‘when’ range from next year to 40 years away, depending on how you want to portray yourself – as an innovator, a pragmatist or a non-believer.

A quick search on Wikipedia will tell you that the first demonstration of self-driving cars took place in the mid 1980’s. In 1995, a self-driving car completed the first autonomous long distance drive from Pittsburgh to San Diego, over a distance of 2,797 miles with an average speed of 102.7km/h.

So why don’t we have a single self-driving car permitted on the roads even in 2017? It is over 30 years since the technology was demonstrated.

It might be worthwhile to understand the reasons because similar reasons would apply to the maritime industry as we follow the path to autonomous ships.

The reasons are:

· Technological challenges: We will need to make all machinery on board more reliable than today.

· Regulatory framework: How will the present regulations need to be modified?

· Legal liabilities: Who will be accountable for wrecks/ incidents? Engine manufacturer? Hull owner? Remote operator?

· Cybersecurity: Will hackers and terrorists find it easier to hijack ships?

· Cost of replacement: What would be the destiny of the ships being built now and before all cargo can be carried on autonomous ships?

· People perception: Will the public at large be comfortable with the idea of a fully loaded oil tanker or an LNG tanker going autonomous in their backyard?

I am sure these concerns and many more will eventually be solved and we will have autonomous ships one day.

Trials would be conducted and a small limited number of special purpose autonomous ships will be built and put to use in restricted waters under local regulatory framework. For example, supply vessels to remote islands, cargo vessels in remote locations are easily achievable targets.

On general ships (and going by the evolution of self-driving cars), I would predict semi-autonomous ships to start with before we go completely autonomous. For example, the ship could be put on this auto-mode in open sea passages. In the beginning, it would be under the watchful eye of a watchkeeping officer. As the confidence grows, say in 10 years’ time, the watchkeeper would not be required for open sea passages.

Like in the car industry, the technology on ships will be proven first, followed by solutions to the regulatory and other concerns. Subsequently, in 30 to 40 years we may see the widespread adoption of such ships. So what are the challenges facing the recruitment and training industry in these years of transition?

It is very obvious that the seafarers of the future will need to understand technology and its limitations. The seafarer will need to be a person who adopts technology rather than opposes it.

The days of the sledgehammer and touching and feeling machinery will be rapidly replaced by diagnosing problems through data from remote sensors. Human experience will get new tools of machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms.

Engineering skills will still be required but along with the heavy work of opening up the main engine units, the engineers will need knowledge of the ever-increasing automation and electronic systems.

Environmental regulations will keep getting stricter in pace with the global regulations for other industries. The seafarer of the future will be an environmentally responsible global citizen.

Traffic separation schemes will evolve into sea-lanes that will be strictly controlled by vessel traffic centres. In the next 20 years or so, these control centres are likely to remain in an ‘advisory‘ role legally and hence the role of the seafarers will evolve into compliance but a greater need to be assertive in their final responsibility for safety of their vessel. While we already seem to be at the end of manning scale reductions, it is inevitable that ship-owners will want further reductions as semi-autonomous ships become a reality.

The problems associated with social isolation and lack of time to venture out on shore leave will increase. The well-being of seafarers is a growing concern that needs to be tackled today.

The rapid pace of change will bring about many more challenges as we head into the future.

It is our collective responsibility to recruit the right kind of students into our industry and educate and train them for the future forty years.

IMO and the industry associations will need to spearhead the changes. Education and training industry should be at the forefront of understanding the evolution of our industry.

In practical terms, this means that present day syllabus and model courses will need to adopt the changes quickly if the education and training has to remain relevant to the needs of the industry.

It also means that the recruitment industry will need to look carefully at the technical skills that they look for are relevant to the technical competencies required in the future.

In order to have successful seafarers, we would also need to teach them the appropriate behavioral skills.

STCW 2010 does encourage leadership skills. The industry is taking further initiatives of proposing a continuous assessment of behavioral competencies along with technical competencies. A lot more needs to be done in this area and I would urge that administrations and IMO renew their focus on soft skills in the next revision of STCW. I believe we should start discussions on soft skills competencies soonest for STCW 2025.

Human performance will be the focus of attention in the next decade as machinery and systems become more reliable on the path of semi-autonomous ships.

I hope to see IMO and the industry associations’ work closely with the education and training industry to unleash the full potential of the hard-working seafarers. Here is my list of competencies that the future mariner will need:

1. Ability to process large amounts of data from various man-machine interfaces:
Standardised and well thought of user interfaces will be a critical part in the design of future shipboard equipment. Insufficient research or attention to this could endanger the progress of adoption of new equipment and systems.

Accident case studies show that the majority of ‘situational awareness’ errors were due to a failure to monitor or observe data from the various equipment due to either overload of information or distractions.

2. Ability to focus on critical issues
Overload of information can cause the danger of missing out on the critical issues. This issue is already being experienced on the modern day bridge. The plethora of alarms, and displays sometimes distracts the navigator from keeping a proper lookout by sight and other available means.

3. Ability to work with remote teams
Teamwork on board is well understood at sea. However with the closer integration of ship and shore systems, a large number of tasks will be done by people ashore. Vessel traffic services will have a larger role to play. Teams ashore will analyze engine data and advise the shipboard teams.

The large mix of shipboard crew nationalities and multi-national shore teams will bring about new challenges in communications and teamwork.

4. Ability to be assertive
The interaction with a larger number of shore based teams will require a clear emphasis on Masters over-riding authority enshrined in the ISM code.

With the lower costs of communications and e-mail systems, Masters are already reporting a feeling of being ‘controlled’ too closely by shore staff.

While the laws make the Master responsible for all accidents, the reality is that Masters feel that their authority (w.r.t. day to day running of the vessel) is being ‘taken away’.

5. Ability to understand the limitations and recognize changes of automation
Significant improvements are expected in automation of shipboard systems. Other industries have recognized that automation leads to complacency, thereby resulting in slower response in case of emergencies related to failure of automation. Other industries already talk of ‘Automation Complacency’ and ‘Automation Traps’.

6. Ability to manage change
The pace of change of technology and regulations in all industries has never been faster. We see the challenges in adopting change in our daily lives. ‘Instagram’ and ‘Snapchat’ are not needed by the people in their 50’s, however for a teenager they are basic necessities of daily life.

A significant number of seafarers and managers ashore are experiencing challenges with adapting to ECDIS or accepting the inevitable irrelevance of celestial navigation to a young officer.

7. Ability to learn continuously
The human race is discovering new knowledge faster than ever before. It is no longer possible for any professional to be considered ‘competent’ without constantly keeping abreast and subsequently adapting to these changes.

8. Ability to cope with increased stress
The shorter turnaround in ports, faster speeds of transit, larger sizes of vessels, stricter financial constraints, extremely low manning levels, criminalization of seafarers and various other factors have changed life on board to a high-stress job.

Social media is a wonderful way of keeping touch with the family but it also has an effect on rest hours and it brings the problems of the family closer on board.

The high stress levels amongst seafarers and the effects on their health is not being fully recognized and appreciated by regulators and industry leaders. A lot more research is needed on the topic of stress affecting seafarers.

9. Ability to communicate effectively
The ship-shore and ship-port interface is becoming more complex due to various factors like port security (without the port taking any moral or financial responsibility for a stowaway boarding a vessel), terminal regulations and increased pressure on profits in all parts of the industry.

The role of the Master to effectively deal with charterers, terminals, port state officials, oil major inspectors and the multitude of agencies that now come on board the ship has become more critical than ever before.

10. Ability to be a leader
In addition to the Master and Chief Engineer of the future retaining their traditional skills of managing their shipboard teams, He / she will also need to learn and adapt to various new skills of organizing, motivating, negotiating, running meetings, public relations and time management.

The seafarer of the future will need to be tech-savvy, adaptable, analytical and a rational manager, who will be able to do a lot more with better technology and shore based support.



  1. In the final analysis though, human beings must decide if they want to lose control of the earth to robots, machines and similar non-breathing equipment.
    It comes down to choice.

  2. Technical and technological change and evolution are part of sustainable development and safety- mindset.

    Same thinking, sane human thinking!!!, knows and has the responsibility to keep control by application of GDPR and end-to-end righteous, ethical, and deontological professional command.

    Up to us all to guarantee a safe, respectful and sustainable future!

  3. If it comes down to choice, the question is who will make these choices and what is the necessity of autonomous ship? What is the guarantee that she will be safer than a ship controlled by human? and a lot of more questions?

  4. A thorough insight into the matter which is needed now to make seafarers understand the transition.
    Its loosing contril to robots, its controlling robots by remote. As a future Master will surely also be having overriding authority as enshrined by ISM code today.
    Change is part of evolution, it has to and have to come. Just embrace it with full understanding and thoughtfulness is the way.
    Very well written Sir.

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