Digitisation and Automation

As well as being increasingly important topics on the agenda of the ICS Marine Committee, ‘digitisation’ and ‘automation’ are generating much attention in the maritime media and a plethora of conferences. Shipowners could be forgiven for thinking that these might be magic bullets for an industry weathering some very challenging commercial and regulatory conditions. But while new opportunities undoubtedly exist, ICS believes that expectations need to be moderated with a full awareness of the potential risks and of the implications for safety, efficiency and environmental performance. 

Opportunities certainly exist for greater digitisation of data collection, exchange and analysis in order to optimise every aspect of ship operations in exciting new ways. While opinions about the issue vary, many see digitisation as moving from an environment characterised by a reliance on manual processes to one in which processes and services are driven by data. 

Digitisation offers the potential for new ways of working over equivalent manual processes, notably in the context of time and resources. Digitisation can be a hugely powerful tool for delivering high quality, time sensitive services to customers and providing information for both strategic and operational decision making. But it is not without its own challenges. 

These challenges can often be lost in the enthusiasm for the potential benefits of digitisation. Obvious risks include the implications for confidentiality and maintaining the integrity and availability of data in the context of cyber security. 

But a less obvious challenge is actually being able to access high quality tools to collect, manage and analyse the potentially enormous volumes of data that digitisation will inevitably generate. 

There is also the fundamental question: to what extent should a company digitise its operations to maximise the positive effects? Often, digitisation and ‘big data’ are seen as intrinsically linked. However, not every company is equipped or has a need to exploit ‘big data’, so there is arguably no justification for a universal pursuit of this approach. While there may be many ‘big data’ opportunities at an industry level, for many shipping companies the priority will be achieving the right amount of digitisation tailored to its specific needs, and to its trade and operations. 

Discussions around automation in international shipping seem to focus on an assumed end state in which autonomous (‘robot’) ships might suddenly begin to operate alongside or in place of existing vessels. But, while good for equipment manufacturers seeking quick publicity, focusing on this highly ambitious end state possibly misses many of the important issues that will really affect the success or failure of increased automation in shipping. 

When the industry and IMO consider automation in shipping, what they should be considering is the evolution of automation, which has been described by many observers as a continuum marked by several levels of increasing reliance on automated systems and a complementary reduction in the need for intervention by human beings.

Fully autonomous ships may be the final level. But in reality, and based on the current levels of ‘pull’ from shipowners, it is unlikely the industry will leap from one end of the continuum to the other. What can be probably be anticipated is a stepwise progression through increasing levels of automation and the evolution of smarter, safer ships. 

But like digitisation, this incremental evolution offers both opportunities and risk. International shipping can probably observe and learn from the experience of counterparts in aviation who have been wrestling with the opportunities and challenges of automation for some time. The single biggest challenge is ensuring that shipboard personnel are equipped with the competence and skills required to work effectively with the automated systems that they are expected to use and manage. At the same time, manufacturers need to ensure that these systems can work effectively with human beings in a positively reinforcing combination. 

The message from ICS is a simple one. The future holds many opportunities to enhance safety, efficiency and sustainability, but while digitisation and automation may offer advantages over current approaches, neither is a magic bullet, and both come with their own significant new challenges.

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