Impact of autonomous shipping on Seafarers

The influence of autonomous shipping technologies on seafarer roles and responsibilities

The age of the technological revolution has triggered many changes in the maritime industry, including the popularity of autonomous ships. Technology controls these ships completely and requires minimal or no human interference. Conventional shipping was more about seafarers and their efficiency in handling international voyages. But due to advancements, the impact of autonomous shipping on seafarers is such that they have lost their means of living and are left without any other jobs. Let us dive deeper into autonomous shipping to learn about the plight of seafarers.

History of maritime shipping

The maritime industry is full of thousands of ships waiting at ports for cargo loading or getting passengers onboard and signalling them for the voyage. Decades ago, these ships were not well built or designed but facilitated the basic need of overseas shipping. Goods were loaded into sacks or drums and manually lifted into boats or manually driven vessels. These ships had seafarers responsible for sailing the ship, securing the goods against threats and unloading the ship at its destination. The entire shipping process relied heavily on humans to carry out trade business. 

Navigation of sea routes was done using instruments such as compass, sandglass, and astrolabe. As years passed, technology evolved and built shipping containers to facilitate intermodal sea freight transportation of goods and save time and money otherwise lost due to human involvement. With the evolution of technology, ship design also evolved, and changes in the functioning of ships became prominent. Nowadays, maritime operations such as navigation, loading and unloading of goods, affirming ship security and determining best routes have been made easier with technology. The extent of automation in the maritime industry is such that ships have started reducing the number of seafarers onboard as the ships can be operated safely on land.

Conventional v/s autonomous shipping in maritime

The maritime sector has utilised manual work and technological evolutions to fulfil shipping needs and increase efficiency. Conventional shipping is the traditional way of loading goods onto ships via manual processes or low-tech powered machines. These shipping methods include excess manual labour in carrying out the various shipping operations; therefore, seafarers on board the vessel are in vast numbers. Technical, emergency, and engineering teams are available onboard to assist the shipping operations, including navigation and loading and unloading containers onto ports. On the other hand, the impact of autonomous shipping on seafarers is immense. With the steering of new technology, the role of seafarers on the ship is coming to an abrupt halt as boats are being integrated with automation technology to minimise human input. Automation at ports is also ruling out the necessity for as many manual workers as were needed in the past few years. It is leading to the loss of jobs for seafarers and difficulty in sustaining their living.

What are autonomous ships?

The shipping industry saw an influx of demand as the world shut down due to the pandemic lockdown. The labour shortage was a concerning cause as shipping activities were delayed and postponed. In the current times, the global recession also continued a rising curve for labour shortages. Under such circumstances, the maritime industry had to look for a solution to this problem. Autonomous ships that already existed came to be popularly utilised in the maritime industry. Technological advancements have determined a new future for the maritime shipping industry. The influence of automation in the shipping industry makes it easier to operate and control ships remotely from another location fully. The degree of autonomy may vary from ship to ship. While some ships may still entertain a few seafarers aboard, others are free of them. Autonomous ships are crewless vessels equipped with smart technology where the operating system can make shipping decisions and determine any further course of action. These independent ships use sensory information and incoming data to efficiently and speedily analyse, compute, and carry out successful voyages. However, these ships are free of seafarers onboard but use human interference from a remote area to overlook navigation, AI-powered predictive maintenance and cargo handling operating machines.

Benefits of autonomous shipping

On one hand where the impact of autonomous shipping on seafarers is a huge blow to their career, the technological trend is gaining immense popularity in the maritime industry among various investors due to its multiple benefits.

  1. Minimise human errors– All onboard tasks are left to the electronic sensors and brain to collect data, analyse, comprehend and provide inputs for the further voyage, and make operational decisions. It offers improvised safety and security by preventing human errors that could have otherwise sabotaged the ship’s safety. A maritime voyage is a challenging task that is full of threats to the life of seafarers onboard. Fully autonomous ships have completely cut down the chances of any such risks.
  2. Improved efficiency– Since all operations are regulated and mastered based on data accuracy, sensory signals, data collection and analysis through technologies, the role of big data analytics in shipping is significant. Optimised navigation, efficient route planning, and real-time tracking of the ship help estimate an accurate ETA. It helps drive an accelerating graph for shipping efficiency and ensures standard delivery of goods.
  3. Environment friendly– Seafarers onboard are given accommodation to rest, cook, freshen up and shower. All these activities require plenty of resources and lead to waste disposal and emissions from cooking and maintaining temperature controls. It also leads to greater consumption of fuel. Eliminating the use of seafarers onboard helps in reducing emissions and making shipping activities more sustainable.
  4. Reduced operating cost– The investment put into having a crew onboard and managing their stay is a lot. All these costs are slashed by freeing up the ship of any humans. It also helps offer extra space to store more containers; more goods can be shipped in one go. It helps increase profitability and reduce operational costs that were otherwise spent managing a crew. The benefits of blockchain technology in maritime trade make it easier to make all shipping transactions.
  5. Continuous voyage– The shipping operations are managed using technology-driven operating systems and can therefore function 24/7 without any disruption. In the case of seafarers, shipping activities cannot occur throughout the day since the crew is advised to take at least 10 hours of rest in 24 hours.

What is the impact of autonomous shipping on seafarers

  1. Reduced employment– Autonomous shipping calls for crewless shipping, which leads to immediate limitations of mass employees on board. Traditional crew, including captains, officers, engineers, and autonomous shipping, will lead to a significant unemployment scenario.
  2. Adapting to new roles– Autonomous shipping may cancel the traditional roles for many seafarers. Still, new roles have evolved that require adapting to more technical and advanced roles for remote monitoring of vessels. Seafarers must open up and allow themselves to fit into these new roles.
  3. Develop new skills– Shore-based monitoring will open up opportunities such as data analysts and technicians for maintaining autonomous operating systems and remote operations. All these tasks would require seafarers to learn and develop new skills to stay employed in the long run. 
  4. Economic loss– A sudden loss in employment will lead to a financial crisis for many seafarers who may struggle to sustain a living for themselves and their families. It also impacts their mental health and affects their social life. Seafarers must therefore choose alternative sources of income or upskill to fit into the requirements of autonomous shipping.

These are a few impact of autonomous shipping on seafarers that may cause them to change or lose their jobs entirely. They are forced to leave their jobs or upskill themselves to earn a living.

LOTUS Containers is a leading provider of reliable shipping container services across the globe. We offer new and used shipping containers that are suitable for intermodal transportation.

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