Dec 28th 2021 | Piyush Raj

3 Days

3 Ruminations

Name of column – Point of view

Chapter 1 – Autonomous shipping – Is the change inevitable?

Having spent 20+ years in the maritime industry, my lasting impression of a typical commercial ship is that of a long floating beam carrying  cargo, using screw propulsion systems and burning the worst fuel derivative from crude. Nothing seems to have changed fundamentally in a century or  so.

So when promises to change this alligator of a product (and the gladiators running it) in a jiffy are made, I start wondering if the hulla boo about aligning it to latest and greatest technologies known to human beings, is for real.  Maybe it is, but putting a measure to the time axis, even in decades, is definitely audacious.

The way the maritime industry runs, the path to autonomous shipping will need an effort from everyone involved  – charterers, owners, operators, flag states, class societies, equipment manufacturers, information technology companies and other stakeholders. Each of them have a role to play and in that process they will need to change as well. We already see the tailwind but is it enough to propel the autonomous brigade?

Many would argue that the answer to the question is perhaps not so much about ‘if it would happen’ but more about ‘when it would happen’.  And then they go around the details of enabling technologies, benefits galore and give some milestones, if not accurate predictions.

But there is something more basic which drives an overwhelming yes to the previous question. Something  for which  I and many more get up every morning and do our bit for the next 19 hours. What is driving this belief? Ah…not the money or name associated with it, but something else, and still related to Maslow.

Not many years ago when I was sailing, I used to ask this question to myself –  which was the best day onboard for me. Despite being very generous in my evaluation to days when I got promoted, days when I received salary etc., the day when I signed off always came first. Not to mention the small pleasures associated with Biryani counts and crossing the dates on the calendar.

Later, after joining a shore office and subsequently a classification society I realised it never changed for me, even if it was a month long maiden voyage, or a three day voyage survey.

The realization that it is perhaps true for all seafarers and people involved in maritime business, despite their love for sea, adventure seeking nature etcetera, sunk in much later, but it did for good.

So if that is the case, what is wrong in dreaming as a youngster (or for that matter regardless of where we are in our journeys) – why go to ship at all for running any operations, if it can happen otherwise with the help of technology. And that I believe is the bottom line.

Chapter 2 – Auto landing precedes autonomous

Earlier this year, one of my ex-colleagues shared a white paper on what container shipping might look like in 2050, as seen by one of the big 4 consulting firms. We sat down over lunch and started discussing developments in other modes of transport. It was easy to identify that the aviation industry and automobile industry are moving substantially ahead in terms of autonomous operation. Having spent a considerable time within the maritime industry it was kind of demeaning and while I tried to put a brave front, within me I knew that despite recent leaps, Very Small Aperture Antennas are yet to find place onboard majority of ships and IoT devices are primarily used for personal purposes onboard!

Wondered for a while what is distinctly different in maritime transport from its cousins and it did not occur to me till a Sunday afternoon when I bumped into a commercial pilot at a golf course. After exchanging pleasantries, my curiosity got better of etiquette  and I asked the gentleman about the state of union on modern aircrafts. He smiled and whispered that most modern aircrafts actually advise pilots for autonomous landing (auto landing) in bad weather / restricted visibility. It was a bigger shock when the old man told me that it was nothing new and the technology was available even in the 1970s, when he started flying. Almost in disbelief, I went on to ask what makes him trust the systems more than human beings in such scenarios. He said, almost nonchalantly, that the computer systems managing it have redundancy and all equipment performing the operations are maintained by engineers when the aircraft is not in air!

It was a Eureka moment, kind of an eye opener in many ways, as this was the first time I realised that onboard ships we try to manage both operations and maintenance. An aircraft pilot does not think about doing maintenance and the same is the case for us when we drive a car. Maintaining the aircraft or an automobile is not part of the problem statement when someone thinks of running them autonomously. What drives a different thought for ships is perhaps the nature of commercial shipping which may require it to be at sea for extended periods.  So as we think about autonomous operations of ships, while we need to automate the operations (all watchkeeping stuff for navigation, cargo and engine operations), we need to simultaneously bother about saying with 100% reliability, that between point A and point B, there will be no equipment failure requiring manual intervention.

While I wait for my turn to go for another lunch with my ex-colleague and gain some lost ground, the type and run of the first autonomous ships are somewhat visible . Coastal vessels on a fixed run, and not burning the last molecule from crude. For those crossing the Atlantic in winters, most probably it is going to be a slow, system by system crawl.

By the way, there is another debate brewing for the long haul commercial vessels. Who will get lucky to shift his workplace first – those who run the operations or those who run the maintenance. And yes this is sensitive, because it involves us, the people. Ah but let us keep it for another day!

Chapter 3.

Buzzwords and beyond –  data collection and ingestion for ships

It was a typical Friday afternoon at Fusionopolis, a melting pot for young tech enthusiasts and vintage seafarer’s pride in one of the top maritime cities. However the discussion today in the room wasn’t about what is available on tap in the bar downstairs or what is the Baltic index.  It was about  how to engage and optimize the Mosquitto for data transfer! And this was preceded by a long knowledge sharing session with colleagues from the data science stream, where Thor had the limelight!.

A hardcore shippie could easily wipe it off as inconsequential discussion  over buzzwords, but if you realize that to flatten out terabytes of data (to find an anomaly) you need  nothing less than Thor’s hammer, the analogy is immediately obvious and you would appreciate it as part of the intuitive experience, the data science platform brings to you.

When you get down to working interaction with people who create and use these buzzwords, you may discover that perhaps the silicon valley geeks do not get to see (by chance or by choice) real playgrounds. So they relate to fun associated with doing new things in creative ways, sometimes by naming them after idols or epitomes originating in the virtual world and sometimes by following the ‘keep it simple’ philosophy learnt on the job. And maybe, there goes the etymology of these buzzwords. This includes those used for hardware, software, data transfer protocols, firewalls and so on, before it reaches the end user.

The other underlying fact is that many of these tech innovations, around which these buzzwords fly, saw the light of day for specific purposes and often have little in common with their cousins which might have gone through a different development cycle, perhaps at very different geographic locations and with very different end goals.

While you may celebrate the creativity, diversity and ingenuity involved in the etymology of these buzzwords, you  would start seeing real issues when the environment around them is brought to life and they are used  together to run a system for the ships in operation. Their diverse origins, ranging from silicon valley through scandinavian countries, and up to far eastern countries are clearly visible, both in hardware and software. The fact that some of these products originated outside the maritime environment and are optimized for the purpose they were created, adds up to these issues.

For example, the method used by an Alarm Monitoring System (AMS) originating from one maker for collecting and communicating data  is quite different from how the same is achieved by another AMS maker. Again perhaps there are no problems if these two systems are on two different ships or (even if they are on the same ship) supporting different functions without interacting with each other.  But when you have two systems from different makers on the same ship, which is built in a far east shipyard, with L1 suppliers from across the globe, things are different.

There are primarily two parts to it.

First is the hardware and data format part where you would find that technology and architecture plays a crucial role. As a user you would like to know how data is available to you. For the blessed one they would see it as coming via the lan cable or a serial cable (kind of what goes in a printer). For the less fortunate they would also know the data protocols, and the good, the bad and ugly associated with it.  Difference in data format, regardless of the buzzwords used to refer to them, is a challenge. You need to maintain uniformity in your data points, in order to have good quality data, else you are looking at substantial data cleaning and manipulations efforts.

Second and perhaps more important is how this data is communicated.  You transfer all, you transfer only when it changes or you use a combination of supervised and unsupervised ways to transfer what you consider is an anomaly.  While the proponents of ‘data is new oil’ may see logic in having it all, but despite the recent boom in VSAT bandwidth, how much you transfer is still a valid question to ask. 

There is another story about what is done with this data to help those who run these ships. But let us keep this for another day in this interesting year ahead of us. Will it be the year which would see shipping leapfrogging in the digitalization domain, helping shipping cope up with challenges piled up by Covid . Or will it be the first step backwards towards a subsequent sprint ahead. Only time will tell!

Wish you all a better year in 2022!!

About the author

Piyush Raj is a Sr Director of product management in Alpha Ori Technologies and leads SMARTVoyager product management and Data Science team. Contact:

Get in touch