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Autonomous or Smart Ships

The Nautilus Federation position - adopted January 2017

Autonomous or Smart ships are part of a wider debate within society about the impact of technology and the consequences of automation in the workplace. Particularly for shipping and seafarers. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum warned that the rise of robots will lead to a net loss of more than five million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by 2020.

Technology’s erosion of the traditional link between increasing productivity generating increased employment threatens to create even more inequality – and this process will accelerate as technology replaces ever-more skilled jobs, presenting profound challenges to the world’s socio-economic systems.

Inland waterways transport is similarly confronted by considerations regarding autonomous vessels and indeed the first experiments are taking place, building on the introduction of new technologies in the wheelhouses and engine rooms. This has brought with it calls for reviews of manning requirements but also for workload analyses as work becomes increasingly intellectual rather than manual and as 24/7 operating time becomes more widespread. However, the dense traffic conditions on the major waterways along with the effects of tides and currents call for complex operations to ensure safety for persons and free-flowing traffic. The predominance of small owner operators with underfunded enterprises is also a limiting factor to a widespread of rapid introduction of smart vessels.

The Nautilus Federation recognizes the rapid advances being made in shipboard technology, information and communication data exchange and shore-based support systems. We believe that technological change is inevitable and that advances in information and communications technology, and robotics, will affect the future of the shipping industry, just as they are re-shaping the nature of work ashore.

The Federation believes it is important to find ways of ensuring that such developments are human centered and to result in improve safety and bring about high quality employment and training for maritime professionals. Much of the discussion so far has been driven by equipment manufacturers and potential service suppliers and has concentrated on technical systems, rather than their potential human element issues and social impact.

While shipping is often said to be a conservative industry and slow to change, history – including recent history – shows that there have been sweeping transformations, such as the shifts from sail to steam to diesel, from coal to oil, the development of automated engine control systems and navigation equipment, including the gyro compass, radar/ARPA and terrestrial navigation systems. And, the adoption of containerization has changed the world’s economy and created globalization.

More recently, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has moved to embrace the mandatory carriage of new technology, including GMDSS, VDR, AIS and ECDIS as well as a complex set of requirements for power and control systems, along with the ongoing development of a strategy for e-Navigation. Many of these advances have been supported by trade unions representing seafarers, and most notably where they have been shown to deliver improvements in safety or living and working conditions on board ship.

However, it should be noted that the introduction of new technology can be a disruptive force that is not always painless and not all technologies have met the challenges of economic and technical feasibility. The shipping industry, and those who regulate it, need to exercise caution in the move toward the operation and regulation of autonomous ships – acknowledging that changes should be evaluated as experience is gained at every stage of its development.

There is also a need for a definition of what stage of automation is being discussed to reach a common understanding of what issues have to be addressed. Lloyd’s Register has proposed six stages or autonomy levels (AL’s) for shipping, depending on the technology, systems and operating procedures involved. These should provide clarity as to what stage of automation is being discussed. These range from AL1 for ships with data collated for onboard decision making, through to AL6 which denotes a fully autonomous ship with no access required for its operation.

This process should begin now, with analysis of the existing impact of automation – and most notably to assess it as a factor within accident investigation reports. There is an urgent need for research now, not down the line, to assess these critically important factors. Too often, accidents are written off as being the consequence of ‘human factors’ when, in reality, issues such as ergonomics, distractions from information overload, equipment design, over-reliance on automated systems, and training are of crucial significance.

It could be argued that automated ships are already a reality, with ‘smart’ ROVs and Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles being used in such areas as marine research, defence and in the oil and gas industry. However, it should be accepted that the operation of such vessels – largely for limited periods and in closely controlled circumstances and nearby operational areas – is very different from the complex operations and support required for autonomous deep sea commercial shipping in distant waters.

Nevertheless, the potential for further radical change in shipping operations is clear: for example, there are several EU-funded research projects examining the issues, equipment manufacturer ABB has already opened a number of shore-based remote engine monitoring centres, and Rolls-Royce has revealed plans to build a remote-controlled offshore service craft by 2018.

The speed at which autonomous shipping is embraced by the industry is likely to be driven strongly by economics. Fully autonomous ships and the supporting infrastructure will require huge amounts of investment and savings on labour may be marginal, given the relatively low cost of many seafarers in the global maritime labour market. And, many functions carried out by onboard seafarers such as cleaning tanks, servicing equipment, minor repairs, maintaining condition of cargoes, and mooring operations do not lend themselves to remote operations. The Nautilus Federation also contends that economics should not be the core criteria influencing the adoption of autonomous systems – it should be safety and the protection of the marine environment.

Fully autonomous cargo ships may be a potential reality as onboard systems are increasingly automated – and while there are legitimate concerns that this could de-skill seafarers or reduce employment opportunities, the Nautilus Federation believes that these developments could offer opportunities for a new generation of maritime professionals, underpinned by the demand for new skill sets and aptitudes from seafarers. There is a compelling case for the industry to change its collective mindset, and to come to regard seafarers as a resource to invest in rather than an operating cost that must continually be reduced or eradicated.

This is illustrated by the well-fought rear-guard action undertaken by unions as GMDSS began to take effect - keeping the case for an electronic specialist very much alive, and resulting in the 2010 ‘Manila Amendment’ certification requirements for an Electronic Technical Officer (ETO) included in the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention.

The work done by the seafarer unions to formally recognise ETO skills and training provide a model for the essential work that lies ahead to ensure that there is appropriate training, skills and knowledge to safely operate new systems and to provide the necessary underpinning seafaring expertise for automated maritime operations. Indeed, the ETO’s role is of increasing importance in today’s shipping industry – and, in the years to come, the need for a technical specialist onboard will accelerate further. The shipping industry must respond to this, and the carriage of ETOs should be a requirement within the safe manning certificate of highly automated ships.

The Federation believes that human centered automation has the potential to improve the nature of work for maritime professionals – emphasising the ‘high tech’ nature of the sector. To harness that potential, however, will require the industry to take a more far-sighted approach to its seafarers than it has done in previous years. The complexities of human interaction with automated systems and its role in operational decisions deserves intense scrutiny – as the maritime environment is one in which assessment and judgement based on experience and training are fundamental to correct decision-making, often in high-pressure circumstances. Whilst automation in the aviation model is often held up as one that shipping should aspire to, it should be noted that the airline industry has a very different operating environment. And, it has also been confronted with the problem of deskilling of airline pilots. Many no longer have the experience and judgment to make the right decision in emergencies because most in-flight decision-making is undertaken by computers. Shipping may also find itself having to deal with the issue of seafarers suffering ‘shock and startle’ in the same way as airline pilots have loss the skills to react appropriately in emergencies due to the high levels of cockpit automation.

Certain sectors of the industry are more likely targets for the fully autonomous model of operations and the transition period is also likely to see a continued need for seafarers in such operational phases as servicing equipment, preparing for and managing cargo, mooring, navigating busy sea lanes and pilotage.

As with the first industrial revolution, there is an opportunity to create and develop new specialist skills. Integrating the human into communications systems - ‘augmented reality’ - has the potential to upskill to a degree not yet realised. However, there will be a continued need for a deep-rooted knowledge and experience of seafaring and attention must be paid to the ways in which this need can be met. The industry and regulators must also take a proactive approach to the training needs – identifying the complex demands of interaction with new systems and ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to developing and funding appropriate courses to equip seafarers with the necessary knowledge and skills.

New technologies offer significant potential to improve safety – with intelligent use of sensors and diagnostic tools being of considerable help to deck and engineering departments in supporting decision-making and situational awareness.

The Federation also believes that the debate on autonomous ships has so far concentrated on the technological and the economic issues, and needs to shift to social and human factors.

Many pressing safety issues also need to be addressed, not least the legal and liability implications, the regulatory regime (UNCLOS, COLREG and SOLAS being critical), the extent of shore-based control and direction (VTS), and system resilience, software quality, the reliability of communications and data links, and cyber security.

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