Op-Ed: Why automation is the viable solution to crew shortages

Written by  
Yarden Gross - Orca AI

Yarden Gross, CEO Orca AI

Yarden Gross, CEO and co-founder of Orca AI, explains how automation can help tackle the staff shortages and relieve the ongoing backlogs.

The last few months has seen consumer goods soar in value as ships continue to queue outside ports—in Los Angeles alone, half a million shipping containers are waiting to be opened as staff shortages continue to wreak havoc on the supply line.

Currently, there is a shortage of operators on vessels and in ports resulting in 1.2 million vacancies around the world. This figure doesn’t even take into account the additional shortages in truck drivers who will then transport the goods from the port to the warehouses, resulting in a fractured network which is having devastating consequences on the wider economy.

Labor Shortages and Safety

While the economic situation is dire, the labor shortages also pose additional risk to the safety of those on board the vessels. Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty SE’s Safety & Shipping Review 2021 described the crew change situation as a “humanitarian crisis”, as staff shortages and COVID-19 keep seafarers on vessels for extended periods of time. Normal operations on a ship require crew stay on a vessel for up to  three months, however, in March this year, it was estimated that 200,000 crew remained on board, unable to be repatriated because of the ongoing restrictions.

This excessive time aboard will naturally have a negative impact on the crew, leading to mental fatigue and poor decision making which has a knock on effect on the ships safety. This was the case on the Wakashio vessel which grounded off Mauritius on July 25 last year, with subsequent investigations revealing that 10% of the crew had been on board for more than 12 months.

As COVID-19 depletes available staff and the poor conditions makes attracting new talent near impossible, we’re left in a vicious cycle that if not addressed soon will lead to an even bigger breakdown in the supply chain.

Long-Term Solutions

While some operators are simply throwing money at the problem, with record high pay increases, it’s time we consider longer term initiatives that can help get the industry back on track and future proof it against any further shortages—namely automation.

While some have concerns that artificial intelligence and automation will replace crew, it is actually designed to empower them, enabling them to tackle specific problems which might otherwise have been overlooked.

Currently, with crew shortages and those on board ships working long hours, human error is at an all time high, accounting for three out four incidents at sea. By embracing AI and implementing sensors and cameras across a vessel, captains and crew can access a plethora of data and insight from a single dashboard as opposed to having to manually monitor various locations in-person.

This information can then be relayed to the rest of a fleet or even to ports, creating a more streamlined form of communication between those at sea and on land. Live updates and timings from the port to the ships coming in will help reduce the backlog, as the ships will be able to reduce their speed to delay arrival, subsequently reducing their carbon footprint and fuel costs, while also relieving pressures on the port.

Reducing Task Time Via Automation

Alongside improved communication at the port, automation can also help speed up the offloading time, which is currently taking triple the time it normally does. We have already seen trials of automated driverless container trucks by Cosco Shipping Ports Limited and this technology can also be applied to the cranes, reducing the need for human interaction when people are limited.

While we are still years away from fully autonomous ships, it is time the industry embraces the technology which has already transformed the aerospace industry. With 80% of all maritime incidents being caused by “human error,” it is essential that more data and insight is utilized between shore and ship to identify these situations before they arise. By relieving the workload for port and ship operators, we’ll be able to reduce the risk of error and ensure that those who are on ships are in the safest possible situation.

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