Nautilus: Smart Ships Could Change Seafaring

Image Courtesy: Offshore and Home Trade Seamen's Welfare Trust

Seafaring could see a transformation amid the new generation of high-tech vessels, which are likely to operate with increasingly reduced crew levels, Nautilus International’s UK branch seminar on maritime automation heard.

“Where there are seafarers on ships, they will be in small numbers but will be highly trained and specialist,” Mike Barnett, Southampton Solent University Emeritus Professor, predicted.

“The traditional divisions of deck and engine departments may well go and there are big questions about how social life onboard may be affected by these changes,” Barnett added.

Furthermore, there will be challenges for mental and health and wellbeing for small crews over extended periods and “if we are using condition monitoring for machines there could well be a case for doing it for seafarers as well, with sensor equipment to send back data on physical and mental variables.”

Nautilus professional and technical officer David Appleton said it was hard to see the financial logic of automated ships when crew costs are so low. However, he added, while the shipping industry needs to look at the way the aviation industry has improved its safety record with greatly increased use of automated systems it must also look at some of the resulting risks – including the degradation of key skills as a consequence of automation, the ‘startle’ effect when systems fail, diminished situational awareness and alert fatigue.

Grant Hunter, head of contracts and clauses with BIMCO, described the scale of the challenge of revising the global regulatory regime to control the operation of remote-controlled and autonomous ships. He added that many of the international conventions “do not sit comfortably with the concept of automation,” and it could well take more than a decade to overhaul STCW, SOLAS and the collision prevention regulations.

The meeting was presented with preliminary findings of the Nautilus Federation’s survey of almost 900 maritime professionals from countries including the UK, the Netherlands, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. the results reveal that 83% of seafarers consider automation to be a threat to jobs, 85% see it as a threat to safety and almost 80% believe that radical changes in training and certification are required.

However, the survey showed that there are also significant numbers of professionals who see the potential for using technology to improve the working lives of seafarers and to enhance their performance.

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