As dawn breaks, a pilot cutter zips past the homes and apartment buildings that crowd the shore of Port Jackson, heading straight out to the Pacific Ocean. Passing The Heads, the swell comes up and the vessel rocks as the pilot and cutter crew trade jokes to pass the time.
As the eastern sky starts glowing red, orange and yellow, lights of a ship appear on the horizon and the pilot puts on his big red parka and life vest and heads outside, clipping onto the rail as he steps out into the driving wind and spray.
He clambers aboard the ship he’s charged with bringing safely into the Overseas Passenger Terminal. He fires up his PPU and discusses the passage ahead with the captain and the two of them, along with the bridge crew, bring the ship safely into berth.
Similar scenarios have played out countless times in countless ports since Homer wrote of Kalkhas son of Thestor guiding the Achaean fleet to Ilion on an ancient pilotage job.
However, the practice of pilotage has been changing at an increasing rate, in step with the changes in broader society brought about by new technologies.
Via these technologies, data collection and analysis can make pilotage much safer and a future can be imagined in which pilots are not even on board the vessels they guide to berth.
The modern world is also bringing with it a slowly expanding crisis being felt across the Australian maritime industry. With a shrinking number of Australian cadets, fewer seafarers will be coming up through the ranks with the requisite experience and qualifications for upper level maritime jobs, including marine pilots.
However, technology is the area in which change is already being felt acutely in the pilotage domain.
The pilot of the future
Australian Maritime College senior research fellow Associate Professor Benjamin Brooks told Daily Cargo News that the pilot of the present essentially does the job the way they want to do the job, within certain constraints. “It is likely that the pilot has a lot more scope now than they will in the future,” he said. “Importantly, because of the volume of data in the system, they are unlikely to need so much flexibility. The pilot will spend more time understanding and training for contingency events.”
Over the past 25 years, pilots have seen great changes in the way they operate, with the introduction of various technologies over that time, Australian Reef Pilots CEO Simon Meyjes told DCN.
He said the entire maritime industry, and pilotage in particular, hadn’t changed much between the introduction of radar technology and the introduction of satellite navigation.
“As satellite navigation has improved, it’s brought about a massive change,” he said. “This technology is fundamentally about situational awareness and the availability of real-time information to influence decision-making. It’s a vast improvement in terms of safety.”
With satellite navigation came attendant technologies, notably the portable pilotage unit, or PPU. These are essentially tablet computers with navigation software that help a pilot navigate independent of the ship’s on-board navigation systems and usually has the pilot’s detailed passage plan uploaded.
Mr Meyjes said the modern marine pilot now has more access to a bigger range of data that is more accurate. “This allows the pilot to involve the entire bridge team to monitor what has happened and what is happening, and then use that information to make a better judgment about what will happen,” he said.
PPU and big data
With digital tools like the PPU comes the ability to gather vast amounts of data, and how this data is put to use is to be one of the main drivers of change in marine pilotage in the future.
Mr Brooks said the PPU is where the data is fundamentally coming from in pilotage, making it a good place to start when thinking about big data in the profession.
“Some people suggest that the pilot becomes part of the bridge team, but we argue they are part of a port team, and teams need to train together, have a shared purpose and shared activities and all these elements can or should be met by port teams,” he said.
Looking at big data from that perspective, Mr Brooks said, makes the data not just about the navigational performance of the ship – the data that comes from the PPU – but it’s about the broader efficiency of the traffic picture.
This brings other players into the picture, including the vessel traffic service, the VTS, the tugs, and the harbour master and their deputies, who aim to manage the whole port efficiently, effectively and safely.
However, zeroing in on the pilot’s role in this larger picture, it is about navigational performance, and when thinking about data, the question is, how to harness the navigational data from PPUs to make navigation safer and more efficient.
“You’ve got heaps and heaps of data out of the PPU about every single run that occurs,” Mr Brooks said.
“This information could be used to be more precise about what manoeuvre is going to be appropriate in a certain set of environmental and ship-based conditions.”
He gave an example of a loaded tanker coming into Port Botany in winds of a certain speed, with swell of a certain height. “That big data process is going to give you a more and more precise understanding of how that ship needs to be manoeuvred – it becomes a more detailed decision-support system.”
But, at the moment, this image of a data-driven pilot is some ways into the future.
Looking further into the future, Mr Brooks posited that the pilot may not even be in the ship under certain conditions.
“Now, that’s a dirty phrase to many people: ‘remote pilotage’, but I think what ports are looking for is a more flexible and dynamic approach.”
But, this scenario doesn’t seem so far-fetched in a future where ships are remotely guided; teams are more efficient and effective; and safety management systems are more culturally mature.
“There’s a lot of improvement necessary to get to that point,” Mr Brooks said.
“Would you [allow remote pilotage] with the current safety management system, in the current ports, not knowing the ship’s crew, not knowing the vessel’s performance – hell no. In fact, you can’t at the moment, because you legally have to embark a pilot in the first place,” he said.
“In a future when all those things change and improve, then can you take the pilot off the ship, still have them involved with tugs and VTS? Of course you can.”
The pilotage profession and the bodies that represent it, such as AMPI, have a choice at this point, Mr Brooks said. “Do you recognise the change that is coming and decide you’re going to embrace it and identify what the role of the pilot of the future is – recognising that they’ve got an incredibly valuable role?
“Or, do you ignore it and say ‘we don’t want to change; we’re happy with the way things are, thank you very much’?”
“Some people get overwhelmed by technology and think it’s going to be something amazing and different, but I see it as just an evolution of what we’ve got at the moment.”
Indeed, AMPI told this reporter they were looking into what pilotage looks like in the age of big data.
AMPI vice-president Adam Roberts, also a Port Kembla pilot, told me AMPI was looking into what pilotage in the age of big data would look like.
“What does it mean for pilots, and how can pilots meet the challenges it presents?” he asked.
Over the coming years, Mr Roberts said AMPI would be looking to how this mass of data could affect training, and how it will affect interactions in ports.
Mr Brooks said many organisations already collect data from the PPUs, but it is not used to the extent that it could be.
“It is here when you run into some cultural barriers,” he said.
He said that pilots, rightly, considered themselves experts, and might be reticent to accept data-driven improvements to the way they do their job. So, the task becomes to design a system that doesn’t get in the way of the pilot, but supports them and helps them carry out their duties.
“They are expert ship-handlers and they need to be the leaders of port teams. Good technology and system-design can achieve that,” he said.
Where is the next generation?
With big data changing the way future pilots work, we then must ask who these future pilots will be.
There is great consternation around the Australian coast centred on this question of where the next generation of mariners will come from.
With the demise of the Australian-flagged blue-water fleet came a corresponding decline in opportunities for young Australians to start a career at sea. And with the decline in Aussie cadets, there is a coming dearth of qualified Australians to fill upper level maritime jobs.
AMPI president Neil Farmer told DCN the impact is flowing through to pilots, harbour masters, stevedores and the broader maritime industry.
“We’re yet to see the full impact of it,” he said. “Generally, at the moment there’s enough candidates for pilot jobs, but we’re soon going have to tackle the fairly sensitive issue of what we do when we run out of Master Class 1s,” Mr Farmer said, referring to the top Master classification, which is generally required to apply for a pilotage job.
“I think our industry will need other options,” Mr Farmer said. “AMPI will always say that the preferred candidate for a pilot job would be a Master Class 1 with masters’ experience. But then we may have to peel back the layers to Master Class 1 with no experience, then there’ll be Master Class 5s and 4s, and we need to look at how we bring those people up to a standard that’s suitable to apply for a pilot job. We’ve got to be realistic about it.”
Australian Reef Pilots’ Mr Meyjes also told DCN that the issue of recruitment isn’t yet a problem for the year and now, but a problem is just around the corner.
“It’s a conundrum that we have no solution for – the Australian market cannot provide the number of experienced people that we need,” he said.
While many of the Australian masters have ample experience on smaller vessels in the resources sector, Mr Meyjes said there were too few with experience on the big, blue-water ships.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff there that’s missing if you’ve never been on the bridge of a capesize bulker,” he said, noting that those skills can be learned.
Where to now?
Mr Farmer told DCN the daily work of the pilot can look easy and relaxed, but the gravity of the job is always on his mind.
“We have our cup of tea and get the ship alongside, and it all looks very casual, but in our mind there’s a whole lot going on. We’re always mindful of the grave consequences of not getting it right.”
Just as the Achaeans relied on Kalkhas son of Thestor to guide their ships to Troy, mariners will always need the services of an expert pilot to guide them through tricky passages.
Although modern pilots rely on computers and satellites, and not on Apollo as Kalkhas did, the job of keeping shipping safe is much the same, and there always will be a need for these experts to guide the vessels that are essential to the modern economy and to modern life. Just who these pilots will be and how technological advances will help them to more safely and reliably bring ships to berth remains to be seen.
This article appeared in the August edition of DCN Magazine