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Autonomy under scrutiny

Ship & Boat International: eNews June 2018



In Ship & Boat International May/June 2018, we ran an analysis of Futurenautics’ latest Crew Connectivity survey (pages 22-26), which painted a fairly optimistic portrait of seafarer acceptance of – and enthusiasm for – advances in vessel automation. However, seafarers’ union Nautilus International has recorded more cautious responses from the 900 marine professionals it surveyed for its report, entitled Future Proofed? Autonomous Shipping Research.


The report queried a wide section of maritime personnel – ranging from captains, masters and chief engineers to cadets, cooks and superintendents – drawn from 12 countries and representing sectors including tugs, offshore wind farm support craft, ferries and superyachts, among others. And, while the respondents certainly seem to be on board with the concept of smart shipping, pure autonomous operations have been identified as problematic.


The report indicates that 65% of respondents believe that seafarer unions should “resist automation” at sea, with a sizeable 84% considering automation a serious threat to their jobs. Their feedback also contradicts the opinions of those tech developers who’ve predicted that commercially viable unmanned and/or remote-controlled vessels could be in service by 2020. As many as 83% of Nautilus’ respondents expressed disagreement with this outlook, stating that the evolution of autonomous shipping will require a much longer time frame.


The report also highlights a degree of cynicism regarding the ‘typical’ vessel owner’s motives for investing in autonomous technology. Nearly 90% of participants claimed that autonomous / remote-controlled vessels would “only be used by owners if they proved cheaper than running with crews”, rather than representing a genuine effort on the owner’s part to boost vessel and personnel safety. Some also viewed the hype around autonomous vessel development as being more a case of tech developers attempting to foist newfangled solutions on the shipping sector, rather than reflecting an actual, pressing need for crew-free vessels – a case of 'autonomy for its own sake', as it were.


Interestingly, while Ship & Boat International pondered whether shore-based, remote operation centres could provide a favourable alternative for some seafarers, 51% of participants responded in the negative when asked if they considered the creation of such operations centres “a good development”.


Of those surveyed, just under 75% claimed that, if autonomous vessels are to become a reality, they will most likely be concentrated in deep-sea environments, and for international transits. Alternatively, less than 20% identified coastal waters and inland waterways as prime areas for autonomous vessel development, while less than 7% predicted that autonomous operations would be “inevitable” in ports and pilotage areas.


We’d have thought the latter areas, and their related vessel sectors, would have been ideal for autonomous ops and thus scored higher. Casting some light on these replies, Andrew Linington, Nautilus director of campaigns and communications, and author of this report, tells Ship & Boat International: "The comments suggest the participants perceive increased risks arising from such operations in busy and congested waterways. It was felt that there was increased potential for collisions and conflict between conventional and unmanned vessels in ports and pilotage areas, whereas the relative low density of shipping on deep-sea routes is seen as safer – with increased room for manoeuvre and less pressure on sea room."


The respondents were generally more welcoming of an approach that strikes a balance between smart shipping solutions and manned vessel operations, however, with more than 80% of participants hailing this as the most viable path forward. And, as with the Futurenautics Crew Connectivity survey, the respondents identified cyber-security as a major concern, and possibly the biggest stumbling block to widespread adoption of autonomous ships. Other hindrances could include unreliable communications links and issues related to liability.


The Nautilus report can be downloaded for free from here.