Rapid advances in communication technology have driven a host of opportunities for the shipping industry – but do the costs outweigh the benefits?

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The seafaring life is never easy. The hard labor, months of isolation, and stress that comes with always being at the mercy of nature’s wrath, can drive even the most strong-willed seafarer to depression.

Loneliness is made even more difficult, especially back in the day when communication with the family was sparse. Except letters sent through new crew members joining the vessel, and the occasional e-mail that had to first go through the ship master, it wouldn’t be until their vessels docked that seafarers could finally reconnect with their loved ones over long-distance phone calls.

But shipping is an ever evolving industry – especially in the fields of communications and technology. These days, connectivity onboard vessels is made easy, with the crew able to regularly go online and get in touch with their loved ones. With this seamless connectivity, however, comes the question of whether or not crew members will be more productive and efficient.

The ship’s level of security needs to be weighed carefully as well, because concurrent with such developments in the world of maritime are the rising threats of maritime hacking that could compromise the security of the vessel and everyone onboard.

These were among the issues tackled with great importance during the Crew Connect Conference in Manila last November 2015. Organized by Lloyd’s List events company, the Informa Group, the conference was attended by more than 500 delegates from all over the world.

Important study

Conference Speaker KD Adamson of FutureNautics, an independent information resource specifically designed to identify relevant technology trends for the shipping and maritime industry, reports that communications and connectivity are now among the most important aspects of shipping. This was echoed in the 2015 Crew Connectivity survey done by the company.

With over 3,000 respondents from more than 30 countries and conducted with the assistance of major organizations like BIMCO, ISWAN, InterManager, PTC and CrewToo, the 2015 Crew Connectivity Survey is said to be the largest and most comprehensive dataset available. It covers unique statistics on the levels of cyber security awareness, training and attacks on vessels, and the importance of crew connectivity onboard.

The top ten nationalities represented were Filipinos (31 percent), Indian (20 percent), and Ukrainian (nine percent), followed by Russians, Romanians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Polish, and Sri Lankans. Of the total respondent base, 59 percent were officers while 41 percent were ratings.

Communicating with deep-sea vessels, after all, has traditionally been challenging and expensive, Connectivity enables new, efficient ways of interacting with customers, equipment, suppliers, stakeholders, and, most importantly, the crew.

Connectivity matters

The report included a survey as to whether the level of communications services provided influenced a seafarer’s decision on which shipping companies to work for. Seventy-three percent answered “yes”, and this sentiment is echoed across nearly every sector except general cargo ships.

Attracting – and retaining – highly qualified crew is now more important than ever. The study should serve as wake up call for crewing and HR departments to work closely with other departments within their organizations to ensure the packages they provide appeal to competent seafarers.

Adamson also highlighted findings that showed seafarers being given the chance to speak directly to ship operators, regulators, suppliers, and maritime stakeholders about the real story of crew connectivity in the global fleet. This allows seafarers the opportunity to benchmark provisions on their own vessels, and make educated decisions about what kind of connectivity access they should reasonably expect at sea.

“Crew members have quite rightly been vocal about their desire for communications onboard, and like any weary parent, ship operators have given in. What they are beginning to see is that the crew did them – and the industry – a massive favor,” says Adamson.

Adamson says it is clear that the rate of change is increasing rapidly. This is largely due to the fact that shipping has become so information-enabled. Industry activities that are information-led and operate digitally are likely to see the rate of change grow exponentially.

Connectivity is the backbone of this change, says Adamson, adding that there is a need to drive a far more holistic understanding of the crew, not just as people who want to phone home once in a while, but as reservoirs of untapped value who can be better supported, better heeded, and more deeply embedded into the organization.

‘Not always good news’

Even the industry has no choice but to come to the realization that connecting crew to their families is only the beginning. Adamson stresses: “Crew members don’t just need to communicate – they need to be able to connect and interact with increasing amounts of data coming not just from the humans around them, but also increasingly the ship and even the cargo itself. Automation and digital interfaces are growing, as are new kinds of relationships with suppliers who may be monitoring equipment in real time from shore or interacting directly with the crew on procurement decisions on an e-procurement platform like e-serve.

Weighing in on the issue, Samuel Lim of GSM Maritime Services and a director of the Joint Manning Group (JMG), points out that new communications technology has definitely made an impact on today’s seafarers. “On the plus side, seafarers are brought closer to their loved ones, thus improving life onboard and motivating them to work positively. On the downside, since information is so available, news from home is not always good. Thus, it also de-motivates them drastically overnight and affects their onboard performance,” he says.

From a managerial standpoint, Lim believes that while benefits outweigh the costs – it is now easier to contact and know the current status of the vessels – there is still a need to address a pressing concern: Now, “seafarers, especially our officers, have become so dependent on our ship management office to decide for themselves.”

Gone are the days of the old seadogs, when ship officers were the ones confidently deciding what is best for the ship.

Threats to maritime security

Though there are numerous efficiencies and opportunities that arise from providing easy connectivity, there is also that which has caused industry-wide alarm: the increasing cases and sophistication of cyber crime. Adamson points to a report by the World Economic Forum in Davos which states that the fear of cyber crime could act as a brake on technology adoption, thereby costing the world economy more than $3 trillion.

While cyber crime has been a problem for every industry, Adamson shares anecdotal evidence to date suggests that shipping is in more trouble than most. The report shows only 12 percent of crew have received any form of cyber security training. In addition, only 43 percent are aware of any cyber safe policy or cyber hygiene guidelines provided by their company for personal non-browsing of the use of removable media. Unsurprisingly, given the above statistics, 43 percent of the crew surveyed report that they have sailed on a vessel that was infected with a virus or malware.

For an industry that sits at the heart of countless logistics and value chains, carries cargoes for government and defense departments, and includes within it such critical infrastructures as ports, this is a situation that needs to be addressed urgently.

Adamson stresses: “Cyber awareness and resilience is not an IT issue – it is a downside risk of the increased dependence upon technology that digital operations inevitably entail, and it must be grasped and managed by boards accordingly.

It is essential that ship operators acknowledge the fact that cyber attacks now target users rather than infrastructure.”

Cyber resilience, Adamson says, is going to be one of the great struggles of shipping and every other industry in the future. With moves already underway in the U.S. to draw up maritime cyber security requirements for vessels, rapid engagement and an acknowledgement that regulation could be coming faster than anyone realizes, is essential.

Previously published in Seafarer Asia, Jan.-Feb 2016 Security and Welfare issue. Story by Carmela Huelar, photography by Sylvain Liechti.