Seafarers see the prospect of autonomous ships as an opportunity to solve a number of problems in commercial shipping, but warn that crew expertise is central to decision-making in a time of technological change. And to make the change effective, companies and governments need to ensure the technology is transparent and reliable.
Governments and companies must also be more transparent to ensure that crews’ expertise is central to decision-making in a time of huge technological change.
These are the conclusions of research collating seafarer perspectives and expectations on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) published jointly by the Korean Maritime Institute (KMI), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Korea Institute of Maritime and Fisheries Technology (KIMFT). Researchers interviewed 17 seafarers and seafarers’ representatives, giving voice to their hopes and fears about increasing levels of automation in the merchant fleet.
“Developments in artificial intelligence are making the possibility of fully autonomous ships more real,” said David Heindel, chair of the ITF’s seafarers’ section. “These ships are already being tested, though most seafarers don’t envisage them becoming a practical reality for many years. What we are likely to see is a gradual process where levels of automation steadily increase. Far from considering this a threat to jobs, unions believe it is an opportunity to make shipping safer, with more skilled, better-quality work, putting the industry in a better place to tackle big issues like climate change.”
The research indicates that demand for seafarers’ skills and competencies will keep rising until at least 2040, as the shipping industry continues to boom. However, it recognises that the employment growth rate may ease slightly because of automation.
“The global reality is that we need cleaner, greener ships to curb the industry’s emissions, and if new technology can help with this challenge, we welcome that. But the industry must also deal with the urgent safety and health issues that seafarers face daily, from basic access to clean drinking water to having the right skills to work with new and old tech. All of these challenges require workers’ input to resolve them.”
Heindel pointed out that we are on the brink of a huge technological change in the way shipping operates – both due to technological advances and the urgent need to shift to sustainable energy sources in response to the climate crisis. He said that we needed to take account of seafarers’ perspectives, ensuring a worker-led just transition, and making the most of their practical day-to-day expertise and experience to ensure technology protects decent working conditions at sea.
“That’s why this report is so important,” said Heindel. “As all parties come to grips with the changes required in regulations and ship operation and the skills that will be needed, it is crucial that we include the voices of those who will be expected to make the new technology work.”
The industry will require a different set of skills and competencies so that training will become a critical issue. Seafarers interviewed in the research were very positive about learning new skills and the impact these would have on the quality of their work. But they felt the industry was not doing enough to fund training, and preparing seafarers for the coming changes.