In Depth: How Will Seafarers Be Impacted by Smart Ships?

Remote Operating Centre; Image Courtesy: Rolls-Royce

The introduction of autonomous ships, often described as the next step for the maritime industry, is looming as projects have already been launched to make the smart ship concept a reality.

One of the examples is the construction of the world’s first electric and autonomous containership, Yara Birkeland, which is expected to start autonomous operation in 2019.

Numerous benefits of autonomous ships have been identified including lower costs, more efficient use of space in ship design, more efficient use of fuel and lower risk of human error on board, which has been the main cause of accidents at sea.

However, the smart ship revolution brings a myriad of challenges that are yet to be resolved, aside to technological hurdles. These involve resolving the issue of navigational safety, protection from cyber threats and creation of a major incentive for owners and operators to invest in autonomous ships before they can become mainstream.

David Appleton, Professional and Technical Officer at Nautilus International; Image Courtesy: Nautilus

A major issue that also needs to be addressed is the human factor and the immediate impact of smart ships on seafarers.

World Maritime News spoke with David Appleton, Professional and Technical Officer at Nautilus International to get a better understanding of what autonomous shipping would mean for seafarers.

WMN: In a world where seafarers continue to be underpaid, exploited and often abandoned by shipowners without pay or even basic provisions on board what does the introduction of smart/automated ships mean for seafarers? What are the main concerns/benefits?

Appleton: Regardless of what is possible technically, there will be no widespread adoption of autonomous ships until the concept makes financial sense for shipowners. For those owners operating at the very bottom of the industry, there will be little incentive to invest in new technology when they can continue to exploit seafarers with impunity as they have done historically.

That being said, we do believe that if technology is used in the correct way to, reduce seafarer workloads, assist in improving safety and improve the quality of life onboard rather than being used as an excuse to further reduce crew numbers then there could be considerable benefits.

It is also possible that the introduction of more advanced technology could act as a catalyst to drag the international regulatory regime with regards to crew training kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This can only be a good thing as it is not fit for purpose with the technology we have installed on ships currently let alone with what is proposed for the future.

WMN: Current reports indicate that smart ships, among other features, would be managed from land-based facilities, thereby eliminating safety risks, but also the need for crew members. In your opinion, how likely is this to happen, and when can we expect it to become the mainstream?

Appleton: We believe the human error argument put forward by proponents of autonomous shipping is overly simplistic and somewhat misleading.

For a start, if you move the human operator from sea to ashore, you have not removed the risk but simply transferred it and also introduced the possibility of new types of risk. There is evidence from the airline industry that increasing automation of systems can lead to skill degradation and impairment of human performance in emergency situations – precisely when optimum performance is most needed.

International voyages will not be possible before 2028

Research carried out into the proposed model of shore-based supervision of autonomous ships has shown that whilst the number of accidents may be reduced, the consequences of accidents are likely to be much worse with no humans onboard to take mitigating action. Additionally, the model of the shore-based control center has been shown to create serious problems regarding situational awareness due to geographical separation from the vessel. At the moment all of the attention seems to be focused on what is technically feasible but insufficient consideration has been given to safety and social factors.

Whilst there are some high profile projects underway to test the concept most notably the Yara Birkeland that is due to be delivered next year, there are still significant hurdles in place that must be overcome before we see widespread adoption. International voyages will not be possible until the regulatory regime is in place with the IMO having agreed to begin work this year. Even the most optimistic of observers do not envisage this work being completed before 2028. Then there is still the biggest obstacle which is the financial case. You also have to consider that when purchasing a vessel shipowners would normally expect to achieve 15 to 25 years’ service from that vessel so whilst there will be a small number of specialist applications, gradually increasing over the years, I believe we are still a very long way off from ‘mainstream’ adoption.

Image Courtesy: Yara

WMN: Numerous statistics show that human error is the reason for the majority of shipping accidents. However, no one talks about how many accidents have been avoided due to clever actions of the crew in difficult moments at sea. Can it be assumed that accidents will continue to happen in autonomous shipping as well, especially because the crew will no longer be present at the scene?

Appleton: Yes, accidents will still occur. As previously mentioned if you transfer the operator ashore you have also transferred the risk. If that operator has not received sufficient training, if they are overworked or if the equipment they are using is poorly designed then the likelihood of accidents is the same as in manned shipping or higher.

Automated systems will be programmed by people who are also capable of making mistakes.  There is also the issue of the number of accidents at sea that are prevented by the quick actions of seafarers onboard and the fact that when accidents do occur, without anybody onboard to take mitigating action the consequences could be much worse.

WMN: Unmanned operation might not be suited for all ship types such as for example large oil and gas tankers and cruise ships. Does this mean that seafarers’ jobs will not be endangered when it comes to particular vessel segments?

Appleton: Due to the obstacles previously discussed adoption will at first be limited to small-scale specialist operations such as Yara Birkeland where it should be pointed out that it is lorry drivers jobs that are at risk and not seafarers. Short sea ferries operating within a country’s territorial waters are also possible candidates.

The range of applications will likely increase as the technology matures but there will certainly be sectors where it will be much more difficult to make a business or safety case for automation. Cruise ships and ships carrying dangerous cargo would be amongst these. Seaborne trade is still predicted to double by 2030 so whilst there may be fewer seafarers on average per ship, it is not certain that the overall number will decline. What is important for us is that the technology is used in such a way that the quality of life is improved for those onboard and does not add to their workload.

Remote Operation Center; Image Courtesy: Rolls-Royce

WMN: In the meantime, what can be done during the transition period to facilitate the switch and make it as smooth as possible when it comes to job preservation and/or retraining of staff?

Appleton: Proponents of autonomous shipping like to tell us that automation will create new, higher skilled jobs but as yet there is very little information on what precisely these jobs will be.

Work needs to be carried out to determine which new skills will be required in the future so that companies can make sure that new recruits into the industry possess those skills and are ‘future proof’ to a certain extent.

WMN: Education is said to be the main prerequisite for a successful introduction of smart ships. Is there a need for a different approach to seafarers’ education and skill development process in the future?

Appleton: Yes. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) was intended as a minimum acceptable standard for seafarer training but unfortunately, this has become the goal without any attempt to train above this standard labelled as ‘gold plating’.

The STCW is hopelessly out of date and the laborious process of amending conventions at the IMO means that with the rate of development of technology it is likely that it always will be. When changes are achieved, due to watering down and compromise on cost grounds the provisions fall short of what is actually required with ECDIS training a case in point. 20 years after its introduction it is quite evident from the accident reports that a large number of seafarers have not been trained to use it properly.

If we continue to see an acceleration in the rate at which new technology is introduced onboard then I believe that there will also need to be a move away from this “compliance culture” we see at the moment with regards to training. I.e. it will no longer be possible to credibly claim that you were within your rights to believe a seafarer was competent to carry out the task purely on the basis that he had a CoC. Companies will need to take more responsibility to ensure that their seafarers have received adequate training on the systems installed on their ships as will manufacturers.

WMN: What can be done by the industry to mitigate the impact of smart shipping on seafarers and potential loss of jobs?

Appleton: I think we need to take a step back and address what it is we actually want as an industry from this technology- essentially what is it for and who does it benefit?

There is no doubt that automation has the potential to increase safety, efficiency and quality of life for workers if used correctly but this is not a given. If the issue is approached from the position that the human is the weakest link and needs to be removed then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas if automation is used in a productive way to reduce working hours, cut fatigue and ease the burden of paperwork then this can only be a good thing for shipping companies and seafarers. We just need to make sure that all of these factors are given due consideration along the way and we don’t do it simply ‘because we can’.

World Maritime News Staff; Image Courtesy: Rolls-Royce; Yara, Nautilus

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