Setting Seafaring Skills for Tomorrow

February 1, 2017 12:17 pm

With the new age of autonomous ships seemingly getting ever closer there is perhaps a tendency to think that seafarers will not be around much longer. The truth is somewhat different, today we need smart crew for smart ships.



With so many new terms being bandied around as autonomous and smart ships evolve, it can perhaps be rather confusing. Thankfully though Classification Societies have stepped in and are providing guidance on autonomy levels (AL)

Lloyd’s Register (LR) has set out new “autonomy levels” ranging from “AL 0” which has no autonomous function and “AL 1” which relies fully on human decision making onboard, but with a “decision support tool”, through to ‘AL 6’ denoting a fully autonomous ship with no access required during a mission.

AL provides clarity to designers, shipbuilders, equipment manufacturers, ship owners and operators, enabling accurate specification of the desired level of autonomy in design and operations and paves the way to a clearer understanding of the investment opportunity/risk equation.

According to LR, the market wants autonomous ships that can be operated with varying levels of control. So, while the may be a rush to liken the leap from current ships to future ships akin to cars and Google and Uber self-drives, it seems the evolution at sea may have somewhat of a longer tail.


Smarter people


Despite the clamour and excitable media hype, we are only start of the cyber ship and a cyber-enabled shipping industry. There has been amazing progress, but there is still a long way to go and seafarers are still an important part of the journey.

The realistic phases of the journey to autonomous ships still have the human element at their core, but just in different ways and with a new focus on data, monitoring and information management.

What remains is the need to ensure safety, security and performance. The new world around the corner may seem very different, but actually ships need to keep the very basics at their core. They need to get where they are meant to go in one piece and as efficiently as possible.

The next generation of cyber ships are being proceeded by the era of smarter ships, but the fact remains that however “smart” they are, they still need people to make things happen. We are still a seafarer reliant industry – and even more so on skilled, knowledgeable and




So what will these “smart” ships mean to seafarers? There is currently much debate, and some anxiety too. The fact remains that while the end game and hopes of industry may be of full autonomy, there are many phases to go through until they are legal, acceptable, practical and viable.

In the LR levels, it is only at level 6 that humans are completely, effectively cut from the loop. So at the vast majority of levels there is still a need for people – whether onboard or operating and monitoring from ashore.

So, there is no need for a hysterical approach, or a panic to set in. Seafarers are still very much part of the future – indeed it is their skills, knowledge and experience which may prove even more vital than could be expected.

There needs to be a realistic view taken, and a means of managing the situation as the industry evolves and as new, smarter, data driven vessels begin to come on stream. The consideration of maritime human factors remains a critical factor as the industry shapes up for smart shipping.



Digging the new breed

There are perhaps precedents in shipping already, and the increased use of dynamic positioning has seen a new breed of seafarer develop, the “DP Operator” or “DPO”. The very best DPOs operate with the almost perfect balance of seamanship and technical management.

They monitor and set the systems up, they are always watching and assessing patterns in the performance of the vessel. However, it is the DP system which is really doing the processing and “driving” the ship. This is actually already akin to LR’s AL 3 – in which there is an “active human in the loop”.

The DPO makes high impact decisions, and is there ready to jump in if the vessel is not translating these into the necessary actions and movements. This is an excellent example of the evolution towards a next generation of vessels – but there is as much need for a traditionally honed mariners’ eye as ever, perhaps even more.

One of the changes is the fact that it is increasingly hard to train for such situations ashore, at the current phase of the industry. Even the most amazing simulations cannot fully capture the rhythms of life and engagement of the new mariners, and so it is out sea where lessons are literally and metaphorically learned.




Much has been made of “human factors” in recent years – and now, perhaps more than ever, it is vital that there is a flow and transfer of knowledge across the industry, as we wrestle to understand both the threats and opportunities posed by smart ships.

Lessons need to be heard and learned from stakeholders an incredibly wide range of stakeholders. From seafarers and shore-based management, through to regulatory bodies, naval architects, system designers, shipyards and whole host of other organisations. Each has their focus, but also understands how best to deal with problems and make the most of positives.

Much of the seafarer training for new technologies will be onboard. As the ship becomes “one system”, so seafarers need to be able to deal with and excel at controlling, monitoring and responding to a completely new form of holistic operations.

As longstanding experts in maritime training, at KVH Videotel we know that the scope of learning is huge, as crews need to become capable of managing the complete performance of shipboard systems. The old days of “oil and water” not mixing, as navigators looked after one part of the ship and engineers another seems incredibly old fashioned – and so there needs to be a completely new culture underpinning these fundamental changes.



New skills

The cold hard truth is that currently seafarers may not yet be ready for the challenges of this new environment and the technological leaps they will be dealing with. So the industry needs to manage both education and training needs.

To manage the complexity of risks, to head of liabilities and to evolve the very nature and notion of seafaring is a big ask. However, the change is coming and fast. So there needs to be tough questions asked and solutions found. We train for the known and educate for the unknown, but with so much rapid change it can be hard for companies to keep pace.

This is why maritime training excellence and experience is so important. The new forms of training which are emerging, have had to embrace the fact that humans at sea will be more depending on thinking, monitoring and of problem solving than the old traditions of physical labour.

The new breed of seafarers, and the skills they will need, will be about managing data and analytics. There will be deeper thinking after the “machine” rather than of the old ways of operating. The focus will be on making sure seafarers process information, and that they remain focused and alert. The ship may be smart, but will it stop, think and question? That is the role of the next generation of humans in the seafaring loop.

What do you think? Will the next generation of technically savvy seafarers rise to the challenge and what training will they need and how do you believe it will be delivered? Share your thoughts with us…