COLUMN | Isle of Twits? Towage and the “internet of things” [Tug Times]

Photo: European Tugowners Association
Photo: European Tugowners Association

These days it seems we are inundated with new acronyms every time we turn around, and very few of them give any clues as to their meaning. So when I stumbled upon “IoT” some detective work was necessary. My first thought was that since it resembled “IoW” which refers to the Isle of Wight, it must be a geographical reference.

Imagine my indifference when I discovered it represented the Internet of Things, which must surely be one of the most stupid and meaningless names ever given to anything by anyone.

Imagine, also, my horror when I discovered that Damen has already entered into a joint venture, “to deploy onboard sensors and internet of things technology for tugboats (sic).” Apparently, Damen is using remote sensoring, algorithms and analytics to allow for remote monitoring of operations and performance, and to permit condition-based maintenance.

This must have been written by someone with something to sell, because no self-respecting tug person would ever use the word “tugboat”. Tugs are among the most sophisticated vessels afloat, and bear about as much resemblance to boats as I do to Halle Berry. When I shuffle off this mortal coil I intend to return and haunt anyone who says, or ever said, “tugboat”.

The sales blurb tells me that, “remotely monitoring tugboat (sic) performance will pay off,” through reduced fuel consumption and, if owners invest in data analytics, the information can be used to make more informative (sic) decisions. It probably won’t teach you the difference between “informative” and “informed”, but it will reduce emissions and fuel consumption and reduce maintenance costs by delaying overhauls until condition monitoring indicates a piece of machinery is no longer operating normally. Even better, further economic and safety benefits can be delivered by monitoring navigation and towage operations.

This is such dangerous nonsense that I hardly know where to begin. Most tug companies started taking steps to minimise fuel consumption and emissions twenty years ago, so there is little scope for further improvement if sensible steps have already been taken. No doubt there are savings to be made by postponing maintenance, assuming every piece of machinery can be trained to give some warning before it self-destructs, but do we really want to risk a catastrophic failure when the tug is under the bows of a VLCC doing 10 knots? If God had intended us to do this, he probably wouldn’t have given us marine engineers.

As for the remote monitoring of navigation and towage, good luck with that, but please ask your insurers for a revised quote to cover shoreside interference during critical on-board operations.

I can see how all this technology might appeal to a twelve-year-old accountant who suddenly finds itself in charge of a tug company and has no idea what is going on (and I know of one tug company which no longer has a single mariner in the office to assist), but I hope professionals will think carefully before dumbing down to this extent. One of the most successful initiatives I saw in my career was in Australia, where increased responsibility was actually passed back to the people on board the tugs. They were better at organising tug deployments and maintenance, and saved us a lot of money whilst, I hope, enjoying much more job satisfaction.

Sadly, the curse of shipping is that too many of us jump onto every passing bandwagon and fail to notice that the wheels have not yet been fitted to the wagon. ECDIS, anyone?

“There is no comfort to be derived from knowing we are not the only ones who suffer from this premature ejaculation of technology”

It therefore came as a welcome relief to read that Leendert Muller, speaking as Chairman of the European Tugowners Association (ETA), was focusing on an altogether more worthy topic when he cautioned that budgetary cuts have the potential to create additional safety risks – risks, he says, which the industry cannot afford to take. He rightly pointed out that, even in tough economic times, we rely on high safety standards to remain viable in the face of ‘a relentless cost-focus’ forcing tug companies to lower their tariffs.

Mr. Muller urged owners not to cut spending if it would have a negative effect on safety, saying, “there are some aspects of our business that can never be compromised. Safety is in fact the essence of our business.” He urged his members not to let safety become an area where they compete, but an area where they unite to ensure their businesses remain strong and valuable.

It is refreshing to see safety and value combined in this way, and in such practical terms. Bear in mind that Mr. Muller’s own company is a leader in innovation, and he is not afraid to spend money on new technology, but he was born into the business and he understands it thoroughly, so he is well aware of the importance of safety.

We are fortunate that there are still a number of influential men and women in towage who are following in their fathers’ footsteps and who are carrying on the business with care and respect. They are too knowledgeable to fall for every sales pitch, but are perfectly capable of embracing modern technology when they can see a benefit. Some of them may well employ IoT in the future, but my guess is they will adapt it to sensible ends and not rush blindly into it. Lets hope they will also breed like rabbits to ensure future generations of sensible leaders.

And let’s hope newcomers to the industry are paying attention to people like Leendert Muller. Such men have not become successful by accident, and their words should carry weight, especially when it comes to safety.

By this time, if anyone under the age of 65 is still reading, they will no doubt have decided I am a reactionary old fossil whose career as a ghost cannot begin too soon. But, in my defence, let me finish with a report I saw today about autonomous road vehicles. These wonderful machines are already on some of our roads and, apparently, are already having accidents. Yet today I learn that there is no agreed standard for the lidar technology which gives the cars their spatial awareness. It seems there are dozens of different manufacturers of such technology, and nobody seems to know which ones are the best. One expert commented that it will be at least five to ten years before the technology is refined and clear winners emerge. In the meantime, I wonder how many people will be injured or killed by technology which is not as good as it should be?

There is no comfort to be derived from knowing we are not the only ones who suffer from this premature ejaculation of technology. It seems the Twits have escaped from their island and are turning up all over the place.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.