Scrutinise new technology

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Tanya Blake SAS Editor. Credit: IHS Markit

Shipping can get caught in a rush to adopt the latest gadgets without considering the lessons of technology-led incidents

Technology is, rightly, viewed as an enabler, something that tends to improve, rather than hinder our progress. In shipping, technology has improved and streamlined many processes on board, from VSAT communications to condition monitoring, and it should not be shied away from.

However, not all technology is created equal. Software or hardware that promises to be user-friendly, improve accuracy or safety on board may fail to deliver. Sometimes spectacularly. We’ve seen the issues that arose when the electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS) was introduced – ECDIS-led groundings became a common phrase in incident reports. Multiple designs from hundreds of manufacturers all looking to differentiate their product did not help and led to the long process of developing a standard or ‘S-mode’ to make it easier for crew to use, regardless of what model ECDIS their ship is using.

Shipowners should not rush to employ the latest technology for the sake of progress, or because of the promise of return on investment, or being able to slim down manning requirements. Due diligence is always required. There have been teething issues with touchscreen technology used on the bridge that led to some potentially serious near misses for merchant vessels. The US Navy, after touchscreens were implicated as part of several major incidents, has decided to get rid of touchscreens on its vessels’ bridges altogether.

While rushing to follow the US Navy’s decision isn’t necessarily what merchant shipping should do, it is important that owners question the technology they are bringing on board. Are there enough fail safes in place to stop accidental misuse (touchscreens on bridges have accidentally accessed vital ship controls from the main menu when dusting it or phone cords have brushed the screen while the vessel rolled in high seas)?

How will it integrate with the rest of the technology on board and will it create unforeseen risks or weaknesses? Often, the key to an increased risk with onboard technology is useability. Has the manufacturer worked with shipping to understand the requirements of the technology and the environment it will operate in? Is it intuitive for seafarers, who may not have much time to be trained on a new system when joining a vessel? Often, it is found that technology introduced on board is overly complex, with too many sub-menus to navigate through. This has been one of the problems found in incidents involving touchscreens on board ships.

Importantly, procurement processes must scruitinise why a technology is much cheaper than its competitors. As it all too often boils down to, safety can end up getting sacrificed for the bottom line. Yet, rushing into flashy, pricier technology can also pose risks if it is overly complicated or part of a non-cohesive group of technology that all sits together on a bridge. Whatever end of the scale, investment in training crew on a new system should be a priority to avoid misuse.

Owners should take measured decisions when introducing technology on board and utilise seafarers’ knowledge to assess its necessity. As an industry, let’s continue promoting a human-centred approach to technology design and adoption.