Digitalisation – a view from the crew


““Digitalisation”, what kind of word is that?” my Dad once asked, as he was reading the newspaper, before continuing with “Countless students, kids, teenagers and youngsters’ lives have been ruined because of this. How would you defend that topic, son?”

And for many that sets, if not precisely frames, the debate. 

There are many who think like my Dad did, and there might be something in what they say. However, I am not writing either to bury this topic, or to defend it like a lawyer. I just want to express my views on it.

Life at home

Technology has become such an integral part of our lives that we cannot imagine a day without it. Due to digitalisation the development in computer software and other technology has greatly improved, thus making everyday life so much easier. 

We are surrounded by the results of it, like the ring of the cell phone, the toaster, the microwave and even the foot-massager, but it is not as if we ever get corrupted by these things. The opinion my Dad was giving was not founded on knowledge of digitalisation – it was a personal view based on lack of it.

Our day starts with the ringing of the alarm clock which helps us wake up to surf our emails, and to continue with online chats and incomplete projects and ideas which we get at a single click. From a small restaurant owner who uses his computer to prepare bills, order provisions and keep accounts, to the handling and storage of national security data and files, everyone is using technology on a large scale.

The internet and data are very crucial parts of digitalisation. In schools and colleges the internet is used to provide digital seminars. During the pandemic students had online classes at home, without any significant hindrance in their studies. They get a real life overview of what they are being taught. Their experience of learning things is better, accordingly.

After e-banking was introduced, people’s lives as regards handling money became much more hassle free. They can make payments, send money to friends and family, raise account queries and so much more. There are many physically challenged people who can now lead a near normal life – see for a great example the late scientist Stephen Hawking, who (despite suffering from progressive motor neurone disease) was able to achieve phenomenal things, in no small part due to digitalisation. 

This is a power – a process – that can reach countless millions of people, wholly regardless of race, economic background or anything else.

Life on board

There are probably too many companies in the maritime sector, but nevertheless this creates a competitive environment, and that leads to advancement.

There is a very great deal of technology on board ships, such that we can heave or lower anchors without any hand power needed, and can likewise operate valves and handle hoses. We have smart detectors in the pump and engine rooms, and can fit sensors in equipment which is required to start or stop automatically. Overall, less hand power is needed and more can be done.

More can surely be done, too, with technology, and (maybe with idealism in places) I here seek to cross the indefinable frontier between what we can do, and what we might later do, with proper harness of digitalisation and all that it can mean.   

In the place of all cranes we might fit robotic arms which can move in every direction, without any limitation. As regards the control room and the bridge equipment, we might install software that automatically updates charts on ECDIS.

Radar could be set to give out audio and also visual alarms when any floating object is detected near the vessel, and it might also automatically identify the particular object. We could install software so as to automatically steer the ship when there was danger or emergency, and a more digital and powerful network connection could keep us fully updated on the world outside – including of course with any company circulars or emails – with full auto-updating of all software.

Even these small steps could bring a vital change in shipping, and always with less crew needed. 

Due to digitalisation we can make generators, engines and other machinery which use clean fuel and do not so greatly damage the environment, and all equipment on board ship should likewise be eco-friendly. 

Merchant navy superstructures and also cabins should be more digitised. The transit ways could be made more smart by fitting screen touch panels. If someone is feeling unwell he/she could relate the condition from the cabin itself. We could build the accommodation so that, if the vessel was sinking, it could detach itself from the deck and float freely. 

We could also, quite easily, create a simple and effective port process, such that all documentation was digital and thus handled very fast. All such material should be in one place during any inspections, hence total transparency and rapid clearance, with all liaison between the vessel and the various stakeholders reliable and hassle free.

In any security emergencies near places like Somalia or the Gulf of Aden, the crew can face many difficulties. For any such circumstances, things could be arranged so that barbed and maybe also electrified wire and also hoses were automatically activated by sensors. Any protective citadel should allow the crew to still operate the ship and communicate the vessel’s location, with automatic traps then capturing anyone who ventured into the accommodation.

“Leave the odd things and pick up the right ones”, a friend once said.

I am a seafarer and I see an increased need for a large amount of digitalisation on board, from loading and discharging to general equipment and communication and transit. 

Some of what I am suggesting above may not register as a priority, but most of it would make a great improvement in any seafarer’s quality of life and thus ensure a happy crew.   We used to struggle to talk to our families, but then the internet and satellite communication came to our rescue. Likewise, some of the above changes could bring the maritime sector a major step forward and – looking ahead to 2050 – could be a fine gift for the next generation.

O/S Sachin Singh – “PREM PRIDE”