You are here

Boo Chanco: AI and the Pinoy seaman

AI and the Pinoy seaman
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - March 31, 2023 |

Crewless container ships are now in our future, thanks to artificial intelligence. There is now an 80 meter long ship owned by a fertilizer company that is being tested initially with a five person crew. Then it will be reduced to two and if all goes well, in two more years the vessel’s bridge will be removed and there will be no crew on board at all.

Captain Svend Ødegård, now at the helm of the ship, told BBC News that sensors, including radar and cameras, feed data to an artificial intelligence, which will detect and classify waterborne obstacles.

“We have situational awareness - cameras on the side, front, and stern of the ship,” the captain explains. “It can decide whether to change its path because something is in the way.”

Future ship captains will no longer have to go down with the ship if things go wrong. He will be on dry land, in a remote operation center, where several ships can potentially be monitored at the same time. If necessary, humans will be able to intervene by sending commands to alter the speed and course.

The test ship has been sailing twice weekly for the last several months, carrying up to 100 containers and collecting data along its 13 kilometer (eight mile) route.

An-Magritt Ryste, director for next generation shipping at Kongsberg Maritime, told BBC News there’s also interest in using autonomous navigation in fishing, passenger ferries, and military vessels. Shipping firms are excited about saving costs because there will be no crew onboard.

The interest in AI-navigated ships is not just in Europe. In Japan, a 222 meter car ferry self-navigated and docked using technology by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. last year. A commercial ship also completed a month-long voyage from Texas to South Korea, navigating autonomously for about half of the 20,000 km route.

“You can use autonomy to limit tasks that are dangerous or boring,” Marius Tannum, an associate professor of Applied Autonomy at the University of South-Eastern Norway told BBC News.

AI enables the ship to travel in an optimal route that cuts down on fuel and emissions.

Progress in autonomous shipping is likely to move more quickly than autonomous cars and trucks.

It is more challenging for autonomous cars than ships, Prof. Tannum said. Autonomous cars move at high speed close to both dynamic and static obstacles, road conditions vary, and the complexity of cars in regular traffic. Unmanned autonomous ships with a fixed route and a remote operation center will operate with less risk.

It may still take a few years before autonomous ships start sailing widely. Technology is moving faster than governments can craft rules. But here is another threat to the lucrative employment of Filipino sea-based workers. It is never too early to anticipate potential impact on a major dollar earner for us.

According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the Philippines has been the world’s main supplier of sea-based workers since 1987. We are the manning capital of the world. The demand for Filipino sea-based workers led to a mushrooming of local maritime schools, mostly nothing more than diploma mills that produce substandard graduates.

So, the EU has threatened to stop allowing the hiring of Filipino sailors unless we are able to meet requirements under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW Convention), particularly those identified by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

That’s a big deal. We are about to lose all those jobs even before AI in autonomous ships becomes widely accepted. Overall, Filipino sea-based workers comprise the single biggest nationality bloc in the shipping industry. In 2019, it was estimated that 519,031 deployed Filipino seafarers remitted $6.5 billion to the Philippines.

Assistant Secretary Jerome Pampolina of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) told the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs in October last year that the EMSA found 13 shortcomings and 23 grievances, among which are the lack of training equipment and inconsistencies in teaching and assessment.

Pampolina reported that “The country has not been able to pass the EMSA audit since 2006 or for more than a decade.” Pampolina warned that Filipino officers would no longer be qualified to be deployed in European Union (EU)-plying vessels. The Philippines has been given one final year to address deficiencies in the country’s seafarers’ education, training, and certification system.

The problem is also a failure of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) to maintain international standards in the maritime schools.

Don’t expect our government to act with urgency on the EU’s ultimatum until the EU starts rejecting the hiring of our seafarers. Indeed, we have to do more than comply with current training standards. We have to start preparing our sailors for the entry of AI in world shipping. Whatever happens, there will always be humans controlling ships, whether totally autonomous with no human crew on board or from a land-base control center.

AI should make our seas safer by forcing our domestic shipping industry to modernize. Some call our domestic vessels relics, but the more accurate description is derelicts… in bad condition. Worse, the crew manning those vessels are badly trained, if at all. If MARINA can’t improve training for crew meant for foreign vessels, they probably couldn’t care about those manning the local ships. An industry joke says it is the tourism department that licenses domestic mariners… but as boatmen for Pagsanjan falls.

Oil and chemical companies should be allowed to charter foreign oil/chemical tankers that are better maintained and with better trained crew to deliver oil and dangerous chemical products to various domestic ports. But right now, they can’t due to cabotage rules. So, they are stuck with those decrepit vessels and we get these regular sinkings that cause loss of life and damage to property and the environment. Another example of protectionism going against the public good.

The world is moving fast in this age of digital technology. We aren’t even trying to catch up. Puede na to make a quick buck is still the name of our game.