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Op-Ed: Maritime 4.0 should not be a lost opportunity

Written by

Christian Dwyer (L) and Donald Keaney

The future of shipping is closely tied to its ability to digitize operations efficiently and responsibly, say Christian Dwyer, Global Head of Admiralty, and Donal Keaney, Senior Maritime Director at Ince.

The long-term efficiency, safety and sustainability of shipping depends on achieving Maritime 4.0 – the next phase of technology development where the industry exploits the opportunities for digitalization and automation. However, progress to date has been modestly incremental with the increasing use of solutions such as Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), ballast control systems, optimization technologies voyage and engine data logs.

Furthermore, there is still a significant gap between the minimum training standards and the capabilities of modern systems, even with, for example, ECDIS despite the fact that its implementation began more than two decades ago. A thorough understanding of ECDIS and its route planning functions is essential to ensure safe passage plans, but this is not always the case in practice, even today.

There is no doubt that ECDIS has been a positive development in safety, despite the involvement of some accident investigators, particularly in the early years of its implementation. And the problems keep happening. Take, for example, the 2019 Australian Transport Safety Board (ATSB) investigation into the grounding of an Australian Border Force cutter on a reef. Investigators cited underlying safety issues related to the effectiveness of ECDIS type-specific training, updates to ECDIS software, and the use of a single point feature to represent relatively large physical features on electronic navigation charts.

The British Marine Casualty Investigation Branch pointed out that in some cases officers may have ECDIS training and be familiar with ECDIS, but they are still not necessarily competent or confident in using the system, particularly in terms of critical security parameters.

Clearly, there is still work to be done to ensure the effective use of ECDIS, but we also need to learn why this is necessary, as digitalization at sea extends to all aspects of seafarers’ duties. Already, the human element of shipping digitalization is not keeping pace with technology, creating liability. Beyond ECDIS, the training gaps for Maritime 4.0 and the increasingly autonomous operation of vessels are already beginning to attract attention.

Maritime 4.0 should not be a lost opportunity due to a lack of human recognition and poor change management. A system can only be effective if it is used correctly. Training should therefore go beyond simply checking a software vendor’s manual checklist.

Yet the fragmented and diverse nature of digital systems training programs means that there is no benchmark of best practice for ship operators and their crews to aspire to. It is also important that the training builds seafarers’ confidence in the new systems being put in place. Otherwise, we will have examples such as the 2020 grounding of a chemical tanker in Scotland. The MAIB investigation concluded in this case that: “The grounding occurred because the bridge team relied on locally produced survey data which did not show a rock obstruction near the jetty.This survey data appeared to the crew to be reliable and accurate, so it was preferred to ECDIS data, which showed the obstruction.

Seafarers face ever-changing risks due to Maritime 4.0. As digitalization accelerates, the International Convention on Standards of Seafarer Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) should be revised to ensure it reflects new realities and needs operators and their crews. Likewise, Ince believes that the SOLAS convention will need to be updated to reflect future advances in the digitalization of ships and the impact this will have on ship safety standards.

With the potentially gradual move towards autonomous navigation, the role of navigation will take on a new and different importance. Industry would greatly benefit from close collaboration and standardization when implementing new digital applications. This would mitigate the risks and realize the full potential of digital innovation.

Rethinking training strategies and their implementation to ensure that Maritime 4.0 is truly a new digital age for shipping will not only keep operators and seafarers out of the courtroom, it will ease the way to a truly secure and sustainable future.


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