Genoa - The next wave is not so imminent. And its effects could, ultimately, be not so negative. “What’s happened,” explains Gian Enzo Duci, managing director of ESA, a major seafarers manning agency, “is that we’ve moved from 400 crew members that were needed aboard a sailing merchant vessel down to a crew of 38 aboard the oil tankers of the 60s. That number was then further reduced at the end of the 90s, down to 12-13 crew members, while currently it’s gone up to a crew of 18, due to increases in the paperwork that ships have to produce.”
In recent years, technology has considerably increased its presence on board: “And if more is to come, even better,” continues Duci. “In 150 years there’s been little innovation on this front, in shipping there’s been nothing new since 1957.” After all, the prospect of autonomous ships still seems something of a distant future to those whose business is that of representing seafarers.
“In the short and medium term I am not worried,” says David Appleton of the IFF, the main union of sea transport employees. “We’re confident there’ll be no loss of jobs, and, besides, autonomous ships are still in the testing phase.” Shipowners are still not sold on the idea of complete fleet automation, says Duci, because “the existing fleet is only 20-25 years old, and many doubts still exist as to whether it translates to real savings.”
The axing of a seafarer’s job could in fact prove counterproductive. “Just think of the most intense times of work, with a reduced number of sailors aboard to do them ...”, points out the top manager at ESA. Looking ahead in the long term, however, economic factors loom large: “In that sense I do somewhat worry about jobs, but I wonder whether there’s a sound economic rationale behind switching to autonomous ships; just think of all the upgrading that would be needed worldwide at ports to bring the degree of automation capable of accommodating unmanned ships across the board. It seems quite challenging.”
For some segments of shipping - the offshore in particular - the autonomous concept could be a better fit, and some regions, such as Northern Europe, are an ideal launching pad for that type of vessel. Having unmanned container ships guided from land-based centres that can navigate the world’s oceans seems still set to remain science fiction. “While the technology may exist, it’s just not practical. The same goes, in my opinion, for passenger ships,” explains Claudio Aleandri, director of the Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM).
“We’re still behind in terms of infrastructure, like fleet management and coordination centres. Shipowners are investing in Fleet Operation Centres to obtain data to make fleets more efficient, but to think that all ships could be operated remotely, is just not possible.”
Rather than delving into a scenario of unemployed seafarers, companies and educational centres are focusing on training. Fabrizio Monticelli, Imat’s chief operating officer, points a finger at bureaucratic sloth:
“Everything has suddenly been moving extremely quickly, with the real problem being the set of norms that are not keeping pace with our skillsets. The skills required of naval officers,” continues Monticelli, “have changed rapidly. Our seafarers are not changing careers, but they are changing their skillsets, and we’re heading towards the model of the officer holding a master’s degree.”
More like engineers than seafarers then? “Currently the profile of an officer is very close to that of an engineer,” explains Alessandro Stefani, professor at the Accademia Marina Mercantile Foundation. “The autonomous ship has yet to become a reality, but the smart ship is already here; it involves exchange of data with land-based centres. We now therefore have to enhance the skills needed to handle emergency situations. In fact, we shouldn’t refer any longer to operators of a ship, but to managers of a ship, that need to interpret data, and quickly opt for the best solution.”