Many things have changed in 2020 as we find ourselves confronted with the fallout from the COVID‑19 pandemic. We have all had to examine and adapt our working practices to ensure that we limit the spread of the virus and keep each other safe. Collectively, we have had to learn what lockdown means without precedent or warning.
This situation has affected us all, but the change in daily routine has been more palpable for those of us working ashore. Afloat, as ships have continued to move around the globe, there have been separate issues to address, notably with crew movements, not to mention virus control in cruise ships. Ashore, we have had to be innovative about extracting and managing the information we need to maintain our professional services with fewer people on whom to call. We are relying on our laptops and home broadband, without direct access to our many office IT systems or the ability to physically interact with colleagues and our global networks. Video systems are just not the same!
Lockdown reminds me of being at sea years ago. Communications were extremely limited. When we left the jetty, we were left without access to those who might support and advise us. We waited with bated breath for the Mufax to give us a grainy weather chart and days would pass without updating the ship’s position while the stars and sun remained blanketed behind clouds. Flipping the coin, shore‑side authorities had to wait to receive information from the high seas. These days, we expect and demand the instant exchange of data; it has become the lifeblood of maritime business.
So, what will COVID‑19 change? Will we carry on as before or is this a real chance to move forward and embrace the opportunities that technology offers for automation, Artificial Intelligence and, in some cases, the development of autonomous vessels?
There is no single answer to that question. It will depend on a myriad of factors; types of vessels; their ages; the nature of their operations; the areas in which they sail; their hull and machinery; and the human element. We should not ignore the fact that the following incidents occurred globally between 2015 and 2019: 2,734 hull and machinery damage, 1,817 Collisions, 1,663 Wrecked or Stranded, 1,084 Contacts, 903 Fires/Explosions, 344 Founded, 26 War Loss/Hostilities and 3 crew members missing. The overall desire to improve safety and become more efficient has never been more relevant and we must find ways to achieve this.
There is growing evidence to suggest that life will be different, but is this because we feel it should be, and will it actually happen? Matching expectations with reality will be tricky and will require strong leadership to adapt to the real and perceived desire for change. Many will return to their offices refreshed, having had time to think, research and plan – so often a missing component in our working lives. Some will acknowledge the benefits of spending more time in their home environments. Others will be leaping at the chance to revert to their old routines. The transition back may be more difficult than imagined as we re‑embrace freedom of movement.
Whilst it might appear that not much has been achieved in the past few months, the pace of technology has not been noticeably slowed down by the pandemic. Many companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), have been quietly going about their business and will be poised to spring forward once the tethers have been removed. In fact, there may well be a surge of new technologies that may have to be kept in check to ensure optimal integration into existing maritime systems.
Either way, there is a real opportunity to advance Automation, AI and Autonomy in the maritime sector, whilst reducing emissions to meet the stringent new target figures. This will affect all ships, and Uncrewed Ships will be a part of this process. It would be a good outcome for COVID‑19 to have acted as a catalyst for people to review their thoughts and return to work with renewed enthusiasm to make life at sea safer and to let technology enhance the capabilities for all those connected with life at sea.
Despite recent challenges, the decade ahead will be transformational as shipping harnesses digitalisation and the drive to decarbonise. There is an enormous need for suitable fuel and emission reduction technologies. When combined with autonomous technologies, they will help the industry move towards meeting the IMO 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets, as well as enhancing operational efficiencies and making life at sea safer. LR is particularly interested in the outcome of the Short Sea Shipping project being led by the Anglo Belgian Shipping Company, as it will be beneficial to have more solutions and products available that the industry regards as promising and viable environmental and autonomous technological solutions.