Imagine a world ….” of healthy seafarers

In these difficult days of the coronavirus pandemic, health is at the forefront of all our minds, especially the health of our seafarers. So when Elizabeth Jackson, chief marketing officer and senior vice president for strategy at communications provider KVH, suggested that the ‘internet of things’ (IoT) could improve seafarer health, that struck me as one of the best justifications possible for adopting the technology.

She was speaking during a webinar last week (2 April) that replaced a presentation KVH had planned to make at the Connecticut Maritime Association’s (CMA) annual conference, which the coronavirus has forced to move to the end of June.

Her presentation was not specifically about IoT’s health benefits – that was just one of a number of ‘disruptive service models’ she mentioned during her presentation – but I was struck by one of her health statistics: each year, 20% of vessels are diverted due to crew illness at a cost of “well over US$100,000 per diversion.” And that does not take account of the current health crisis.

Crew are considered as “an operating expense” she said and, “as the move to automation continues, the focus is on reducing the number of crew.” But this will change; “I believe that in the future the focus will be on the wellness of crew,” she said.

“Imagine a world …” she went on, as if voicing the trailer for a futuristic movie, “…where crewing performance was optimised like competitive athletes’.” The focus, she said, “will be on good sleep, fitness and wakefulness when on watch.” That is not always the case today: she quoted an unnamed port official as reporting “an increasing number of crew who are physically and mentally exhausted to the point of barely being able to string a sentence together.”

But what has IoT got to do with this? That world of healthy crew will also be “a world of data”, her webinar slide showed while she contrasted the port official’s quote with one from a crewing manager who is trialling a health tracking system to monitor crew heart rate and sleep patterns from ashore. “We expect this will help our crew improve their general wellbeing, prevent fatigue that creates accidents and stop expensive churn of staff,” the manager had said.

I explored this further with Elizabeth after the webinar. It comes down to telemedicine, she told me. Artificial intelligence (AI) “is taking over healthcare,” and data from wearable devices will flag up problems such as early signs of strokes or heart attack, allowing earlier intervention. “IoT is all about connecting data and using AI to predict and take action. The same should be true for crew wellness.”

This will reduce accidents and other medical emergencies caused by fatigue and although it won’t eliminate ship diversions, there should be fewer of them, she told me.

Among the organisations that share her view is KVH client Martek Marine, which says on its website that it “exists to revolutionise ship safety, performance and crew welfare.” Sven Brooks, KVH’s senior business development director for its IoT Mobile Connectivity Group, drew my attention to Martek Marine’s iVital service, which began three years ago and uses the sort of wearable monitors Elizabeth had in mind. From ashore, a doctor can use their data “to assess the stricken sailor… while calling on other crew to assist in measuring the patient’s vital signs,” Martek Marine’s website notes.

I am not suggesting that telemedicine is new or that the service I have mentioned is unique. What is new is the potential of IoT to enhance its capabilities.

At the start of Elizabeth’s presentation, she illustrated how far IoT has come in a short time. When she spoke at last year’s CMA conference, she had “outlined the barriers and accelerators to IoT adoption as it seemed to be in its infancy,” she told the webinar’s attendees. Those barriers had included the need for real time data, high speed connectivity and the need to standardise that connectivity with common platforms, such as the MQTT protocol.

“Within a year, all of those barriers have been overcome and decision-makers now benefit from the cost savings that IoT provides,” she said. From here, the only way is up. “The prediction is that the connected ship market will more than double in the next 10 years to over US$14Bn in value,” she said.

I asked her later where that growth would come from: retrofits or newbuildings? There will be a lot of retrofits, she said, “but newbuilds may be at the forefront.” In fact, the benefits from IoT technology “may be the catalyst to replace an old vessel with a new one.”

I hope that the potential improvements it can bring to seafarers’ health and wellbeing will not have to wait until the next generation of newbuildings are delivered. The figure she had quoted of one-in-five ships each year diverting for health reasons came from a survey done in 2013 and it is an indictment on progress in this area that the figure is still thought to be relevant seven years later.

IoT promises a step-change in many areas but if Elizabeth is right that crew wellness will be the priority in the future rather than cost, I believe this alone justifies investment in this technology. And if the present pandemic brings a topical focus to this discussion, it may prove to be the kick-start to long-term improvements to seafarer health.

• What do you think will have the greatest impact on seafarer health over the next decade? Email me now with your views.

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