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A week to Find Shipping Strength

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Steven Jones

A Week to Find Shipping Strength

by Steven Jones, Partner at McWatt and Jones

As the maritime world descended on London for the International Shipping Week 2017 #LISW2017, there were some clear and constant key concerns across the multiple events, gatherings, conferences and symposia.

In a blur of tube rides, dashing between venues and with a phone constantly distressed at diary conflicts, which at one point nearly had Siri deciding to pack her hand in, #LISW2017 brought thousands of people together to debate, discuss and often disagree on the shape of the present and future of shipping.

Time and time again issues such as cyber security, digitalisation, safety at sea and the fate of abandoned seafarers came to the fore. While driving much of the debate was the seeming fact that the business environment for shipping is changing, and changing fast.

There was much consternation in the air around so many events. Not just the BREXIT effect of uncertainty, but the fact that shipping seems to be on the real brink of deep, fundamental change. A technical revolution is in the air – not only in the very business of shipping, but in the way ships themselves operate.

Will automation really mean no crews on ships? Will the rise of artificial intelligence mean the end of the lawyer and less claims? Where will the burden of responsibility lie if things go wrong? If indeed things will go wrong when robots have the conn. Across a range of events, it was stressed that automation in shipping is not a new concept; it is how we are about to deal with it that is changing.

There has been a relentless march to automation onboard ships, and over the past decades crew numbers have constantly been reduced to make the most of automation and remote management (if not yet quite control). So, what do the experts think of the next step to our tipping point?

It was stressed that what we are likely to first see is a change in the relationship between the ship and the OOW. In aviation, the role of the pilot has evolved with each new generation of aircraft, and the levels of flying have shifted between humans and machine with each new design and development. There are critics, but the human role seems to be more machine minder these days.

Despite changes in the skies, ships have remained resolutely manual, but change is coming as vessel tests are already running ships controlled remotely. Though, it seems the near future will not be wholly autonomous, instead it will be about how machines learn from skilled and experienced mariners. It will be about how machines win our trust and show that the technology can do what seafarers have been doing successfully for centuries, if not millennia.

There is much fear and disquiet in the maritime industry about disruptive technology, and the ways in which traditional shipping companies are seen as dead men walking. In the face of upstarts and start-ups, what can shipping do to stem the tide threats wrought by change or take advantage of potential opportunities?

Suddenly the accepted wisdom of decades, if not centuries is changing on its head. This is change on an epic scale. There is fundamental change, the construction of vessels will change, there will be no people onboard, the ship will bristle with sensors and be conducting billions of calculations about itself, its cargo and where it is. That is an incredible challenge for shipping to embrace.

An industry which has been renowned since time immemorial as being conservative, resistant to change, secretive and cut throat, is suddenly having to change the very fibre and fabric of its being. In fifty years shipping has come so far, it is almost mind boggling. The advent of containers was the last major leap, but by comparison that seems almost paltry and simplistic.

The next 15 years will see change the like of which we can hardly comprehend. But comprehend it we must, and grab it with both robotic hands. Another key focus of London International Shipping Week was how maritime and shipping businesses can ensure they remain efficient, competitive and profitable in a rapidly changing environment.

It is not just the business models which are changing, consumer attitudes are shifting, the regulatory and environmental landscape is shifting and there is constant pressure to innovate while also remaining viable in the here and now. So just how will innovative maritime businesses solve tomorrow’s known and unknown challenges?

What will the effects of so much rapid change mean to the business models employed, and what will seamless supply chains and automated ports mean for technology, for shipping and ports and for marine industry? In a week, even such a busy one, there are often so many more questions than answers, but the time to work out the passage plan to the future is here now, and there can be no hiding place.

In 2019 all eyes will turn back to the next LISW, and it seems that in that time there is so much to play for. Will the UK be out of the European Union by then? Will autonomous ships be plying their trade, and will any of us be left in work? If we are, perhaps we’ll see you there.

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