Innovation with vision

Coles: The charterers are missing a trick... If data is shared, you’d soon see which are the most efficient ships. Coles: The charterers are missing a trick... If data is shared, you’d soon see which are the most efficient ships.

Transas has been on the leading edge of maritime innovation for a quarter of a century, offering everything from e-navigation and training through vessel traffic management systems to coastal surveillance. Now CEO Frank Coles believes there are some difficult questions to answer about the direction of innovation within shipping.

There is a lot of focus today on technology to improve safety, writes Stevie Knight. But Coles argues that without adequate crew training, many of today's technological advances could actually be making navigation less safe.

“Look at electronic chart display and information systems (ECDIS),” says Coles. “Have they made things safer? Only if the person using it knows what they're doing. Otherwise it has made it more unsafe. If you are over reliant on a technology that you don't know how to use or if you don't know what you're looking at, you've only made the situation worse.”

Coles mentions one case in which a crew had the electronic map zoomed so far out that a reef ahead wasn't showing. “They put the boat on the rocks... all they needed to do was turn the dial,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind that we don't pay enough attention to training. This wouldn't be acceptable in any other industry.”

Training is just one element. In the interview below Coles discusses the factors that ship owners and technology suppliers must consider as the shipping industry walks the path towards digitalisation.

Are future, more sophisticated ECDIS systems automatically going to be safer than current ones?

We aren't going to put anymore functionality into our ECDIS for the user, because they're only using 15% of what's there now. Quite frankly, it provides no benefit. People need to do the basics well rather than having too much complexity to deal with.

It doesn't help that here we are, 25 years into ECDIS, and we still don't have a fixed interface, a fixed way of operating; every manufacturer has the option of doing it their way. This makes it harder to build a safety environment and a professional approach to navigation. Without a doubt we need standardisation.

Of course, the other way to deal with this is to reduce the human role in the decision making and provide decision support. It's not a direct comparison, but in an industry like aviation, even though the pilots are highly trained, they're aware incidents could be catastrophic. So, they use automation extensively in order to reduce the human risk.

Are we talking very new technology here? Last year you spoke of 'leading the way in creating an ecosystem of harmonised integrated solutions in safety, navigation and ship operations...'

Yes. In the next couple of months, we will be launching our A-Suite, advanced tools for the next generation of fleet operations. On one side this will give a collaborative desktop between the fleet and shore, so fleet controller and captain will be able to see the same information.

At the same time, it will also be an intelligent anti-collision tool for captains, taking into account the complete environment around them, the weather, the physical restrictions like nearby banks, nearby ships' speed and direction. It will calculate - at a very high rate – the manoeuvres they need to make to stay out of danger.

Coles: The charterers are missing a trick... If data is shared, you’d soon see which are the most efficient ships.

So, it will 'nudge' a captain and show what action is needed?

Yes, but it will be capable of doing much more. While today it will be a decision support tool, tomorrow it could be connected to the autopilot and won't need to ask for permission. You go from 'decision support' to 'decision'.

That leads to what can sound like a lot of futuristic  and visionary discussion. But if you look at what's taking place now, those that don't see it, those that think it won't happen, are in denial.

It's not automation for automation's sake, it is to reduce the human risk factor, improve the green coefficient of every ship, and the bottom line is, to provide the cargo owner with the kind of ship they want.

In your opinion, what are the drivers here?

I think that commodity owners such as Rio Tinto, BHP and others - like the oil majors - will be the ones that turn around and say, 'if you are going to carry our cargo, we need you to use technology and implement solutions that reduce the risk of an environmental disaster, and take out as much of the human factor as you can'. And they'll say 'if you do that I'll charter the ship, if you don't, I won't'.

It's also inevitable that large shippers like Alibaba and Amazon will start to control the way shipping behaves - they've already shown they are capable of taking on the whole supply chain. So, the right stakeholders need to grab the bull by the horns now or someone will come in and disrupt the market because they want it done in a safer, more efficient or cost saving way.

However it plays out, there will be a requirement for a better, greener, safer, and more efficient vessel. But regulation isn't the way it's going to happen. There's no doubt IMO has great intentions, people will tell you it's wonderful to have so many countries involved in the voting, but a camel is a racehorse designed by committee, and that's what often comes out of IMO - and you end up pleasing nobody.

More importantly, the rules aren't enforced in quite the same way as intended. So, we at Transas have decided we're not trying to push through change by regulation and instead we are going to deliver change by providing high-value products able to respond to the needs of the future.

Is the A-suite geared towards full autonomy?

I'd say our vision isn't so much the autonomous ship as the automated ship. That's a slightly different thing This is a ship that can leave the port and sailing from 'A to B' automatically while still carrying a navigation officer that's monitoring the system. A skeleton crew will be onboard, if there's a need to take over manually. Humans will be able 'to come in and out of the loop'.

If a crew is used to sitting back, how do you get them to suddenly respond in emergencies?

It's the same question that the air force asks about its drone pilots. No different to those on a modern jetliner who handle very little of the actual flying. But you have the opportunity for continuous training while onboard - put a VR headset on and go through a series of exercises to keep practiced, in fact, that might be a requirement. You can build in systems to make sure that happens and the crew stay refreshed.

Plus two heads are better than one, as they say. You have a collaborative work space on our toolkit, running real-time and post-time voyage analyses and anomaly detection. Of course, if information is shared with different parties ashore, the result could be real transparency. That could shake things up.

So, data could push change? It's been resisted so far.

The charterers themselves are missing a trick at this moment - they could shape how the industry evolves. They have the opportunity to drive home safety and quality, by making it all visible... making it all transparent. If data is shared, and then you'd soon see which are the most efficient ships. We need to be able to rate ships on quality, hire ships on quality, and create ships of quality, which means both crew and vessel. That's the effect of the kind of transparency I'm talking about.

There's a lot of talk out there about systems offering that kind of transparency.

What's needed is vision, but this has to be backed up by solutions. Many people stand up and speak about the future, without any real accountability thereafter. I can't, in all conscience as an ex-seafarer and ship operator, speak about the vision without giving people the tools to change, I think you've got to stand behind your vision, and execute it.

I come from practical background. The fact is, I know that if you sell smoke and mirrors you end up by crying wolf once too often. If you are talking about change, you have to be able to stand in front of a ship owner and when he says 'it all sounds very unrealistic - show me', you need to have an answer that will deliver.

How will all this impact the industry?

London has led in legal and insurance, but it's simply not leading in terms of the technology – that belongs to Singapore, Norway, Finland, other countries. And I'd say the freight forwarders and the insurers are under threat, a lot of the third-party supporters of the industry are under threat, because not only can you now do online diagnostics and analytics, you can operate your business remotely, and globally. Without getting on a plane to London.


There’s a vast gulf between those that take training seriously and those that don't. For example, last year Transas installed state-of-the-art simulators for Carnival's €75m CSMART training hub based in the Netherlands.

“By bringing technology across from other industries, we've created a multi-simulator, integrated training that delivers an immersive, real-world environment in which crew members can interact, just like on a real vessel,” says Frank Coles.

By contrast, some even sink to using uncertified, pirated packages.

“First of all pirated software doesn't get fixed, when you copy something its inevitably compromised and it will get bugs in it - it's not certified by the flag state and you are open to cyber-attacks and all sorts. Second, pirated software is easy to hack, it's simple as buying a computer game and logging onto the web to find the cheats.”

After all, who would blame the trainees if the company itself is cheating?

Last year Transas installed state-of-the-art simulators for Carnival’s €75m CSMART training hub


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