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Is the maritime sector lagging in the digital era?

Coming to a shipping lane near you: remotely or autonomously controlled ships. Imagine an oil tanker controlled by a deck officer sitting in an air-conditioned office in London, Singapore or New York — or by automated navigation and anti-collision shipboard technology. If you can’t imagine it, why not? asks Rear Adm. Nick Lambert, a master mariner, Royal Navy officer and the U.K.’s former national hydrographer.

New technologies could lead to remotely operated vessels with no crew on the bridge.

Speaking to marine professionals about the relentless pace of marine technology at a lecture in London, Lambert said he doesn’t necessarily endorse the idea, but “we in the maritime [domain] have to think about this. What would be the benefits of having an autonomously operated ship? And if we do that, does it have to look like a ship? Would it need a superstructure? It could be cylindrical. It could be semisubmersible. Does it need to go 12 to 15 knots? If it were carrying iron ore or oil it could go 3 or 4 knots on a predictable cycle, couldn’t it?”

Lambert sees technology advancing exponentially, though not evenly across all disciplines. “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed,” he says. Aerospace and medical technology are outpacing maritime technology, but change is coming, it’s coming quickly, and maritime users need to be ready to manage it — or see themselves be relentlessly driven by it. Unmanned vessels, aircraft and railways aren’t sci-fi anymore.

The United States routinely flies remote-controlled drones on attack, surveillance and resupply missions in Afghanistan, and the U.K. military does so, as well. The U.K.’s national research agency in April flew a pilotless 16-seat private plane 500 miles through British airspace — with two pilots aboard for backup — to test the pilotless concept in private aviation. The Israeli navy has deployed an armed 9-meter, 30-knot unmanned surface vessel on terrorist patrols, and the Republic of Singapore’s navy has used USVs on pirate patrol in the Strait of Malacca and off Somalia.

USVs “are out there already,” Lambert says, “and as you can see, they are [very] quick.” Yet to his knowledge there are no regulations — international or otherwise — for their use or standards for the navigation or collision-avoidance technology they carry. Technology is “driving a future of autonomous and remote operations,” he says, and the maritime world should be concerned. He says regulatory bodies need to catch up.

Autonomously operated transport technology is becoming more sophisticated. U.K. scientists have built tiny “agile robots” that fly and change formation in three dimensions by tracking their position relative to the robots flying around them. Miniature robotic helicopters build structures using blueprints programmed into their software, and another small aircraft-like robot can fly through a house and map it, without benefit of GPS, using a camera and laser scanner, then use that map to navigate. “It builds an environment, figures out where it is and then begins to navigate,” Lambert says. “It estimates its position 100 times a second.”

How fast is technology spreading? In 2008 there were 140 million smartphones sold; in 2010, 302 million were sold, and by 2016 Lambert estimates that 1 billion will be sold. He says that within 18 months, 11 percent of U.S. households will have electronic tablets.

Speaking at a meeting of IMarEST, a professional association of marine engineers, scientists and technologists, Lambert focused on commercial shipping, but his concerns could resonate with boaters, who like the 21st century deck officer must increasingly navigate unfamiliar waters as new technology comes to the helm and the engine room.

Digital familiarity

Lambert divides the population into two groups: those born before 1990, whom he calls “digital immigrants,” and those born after 1990, the “digital natives.” All but one in the audience was a digital immigrant. All had a computer and a smartphone, and although they were marine professionals, all but a handful confessed to knowing just a fraction of the devices’ capabilities.

Lambert cataloged a range of coming technology: digital key rings, digital wallets, digital credit cards, digital sketch pads, digital IDs, Skype-like digital communicators that simultaneously translate as people converse from different countries in different languages, digital identifiers, digital repair manuals, digital 3-D copiers. “That’s the sort of technology the digital natives are growing up with,” he says. “The technology is out there now. Soon it probably will go to sea and be used in the marine environment if it’s not already there.”

Lambert says mariners need technology that does what it’s supposed to do, and users — whether digital immigrants or natives — must be properly trained in its use. A photo of an electronic navigation and warfare display with crib sheets taped around the screen on a supposedly paperless U.K. warship highlighted one of the problems with today’s technology. “The computer doesn’t do what the user needs it to do,” Lambert says, so one of the operators improvised the paper prompts, which the Royal Navy eventually adopted as standard issue with the equipment.

He says, too, that none of the computers had been designed with dimmer switches for night use, so they blind watchstanders trying to see through windows on the bridge. The Navy finally solved the problem with a jury rig, erecting a tent over the electronic displays.

Putting the user in charge

Lambert exhorted the engineers to “enable the user to take charge of the technology,” rather than deliver technology that drives the user — in other words, make it user-friendly. Lambert points out, too, that we live in an era of digital platforms that encourage every Tom, Dick and Harry to develop apps, some of which are unsuitable for the platform, particularly in the maritime realm. Again, he says, the folks in government who should be vetting this technology need to be ready for it.

Use of GPS and electronic navigation presents its own set of problems. Are the digital immigrants learning to use the technology to its fullest capacity? “Deck officers are becoming much, much more involved with technology,” he says. “We need to change the type of people we recruit as deck officers, and we need to change their training.”

Digital natives, though digitally savvy, may not really understand the technology or have the eye or ear or instincts of a seaman. “Are we producing a generation of GPS operators, or are we producing a generation of digital navigators?” he asks. “How do we translate all the knowledge and experience learned over hundreds of years and incorporate it into this digital environment?”

Lambert cites the June 1995 grounding of the cruise ship Royal Majesty off Nantucket, Mass., as an example of what can happen when navigators become over-reliant on electronic navigation. The ship’s GPS failed, so deck officers had to plot their course on paper charts. After 2-1/2 days, the ship grounded 17-1/2 miles from where the officers thought they were. “The crew said they’d never seen a GPS failure in three years on the ship,” he says.

Lambert says maritime schools are turning out navigators who rely too much on automated systems and not enough on visual and other navigation cues. GPS is ubiquitous. “We have a generation of young people that can’t read a map,” he says. “It is easy to get sucked into the fact that this technology is so good.”

Lambert worries, too, about overly relying on technology to deal with congestion on the sea lanes. “The future of the global economy is reliant on maritime,” he says. The traffic can only increase. On the North Sea, for example, where sea lanes already are dangerously crowded, acreage for wind farms is expected to increase 5,240 percent, from 440 square kilometers to 23,500 square kilometers, by 2020. “That’s 5.5 percent of all the navigable space,” Lambert says. “The North Sea is already hugely complex and busy. This is going to have an absolutely massive effect on the ability of ships to operate.”

Traffic streams may have to be managed and controlled all across the North Sea. Ships whose deck officers aren’t properly trained and certified and ships that do not carry the latest navigation and anti-collision technology could be turned away. “It’s a thorny problem,” he says.

March 2014 issue