Automation will shake up seafaring, Nautilus seminar is told

4 October 2017

Seafaring is set to be transformed by the rapid advances in 'smart' shipping, Nautilus International's 2017 UK branch seminar on maritime automation heard.

Southampton Solent University Emeritus Professor Mike Barnett told the meeting that the new generation of high-tech vessels are likely to operate with increasingly reduced crew levels.

Where there are seafarers on ships, they will be in small numbers but will be highly trained and specialist. Professor Mike Barnett

'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,' Prof Barnett added. '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. 'Many of the international conventions do not sit comfortably with the concept of automation,' he noted, and it could well take more than a decade to overhaul STCW, SOLAS and the collision prevention regulations.

Nautilus director of communications Andrew Linington presented the meeting 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. This reveals 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.

While the survey showed that many seafarers are concerned about the reliability of systems and equipment, the vulnerability of GPS and satellite communications and the challenge of carrying out effective preventive and corrective maintenance on automated ships, there are also significant numbers who see the potential for using technology to improve the working lives of seafarers and to enhance their performance.


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