Autonomous shipping - don’t forget the human element

May 11 2018

Neglecting ‘human factors’ in the drive towards autonomous shipping could pose big threats to safety and the environment, Nautilus International warned ahead of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting this week.

As the MSC begins discussions on its two-year review of the regulatory framework governing the operation of autonomous ships, the Union urged delegates to take note of the findings of a survey of almost 1,000 maritime professionals carried out by the Nautilus Federation of more than 20 seafaring unions.


The study, which was presented to delegates attending the meeting, revealed that 84% of maritime professionals consider automation to be a threat to seafaring jobs and 85% believe unmanned remotely controlled ships pose a threat to safety.


However, more than 60% of survey respondents said they felt automation has the potential to make the shipping industry safer – provided it is introduced in a ‘hybrid’ way, enhancing on board operations, helping to cut fatigue and excessive workloads, minimising paperwork and bureaucracy, assisting with predictive and preventive maintenance, providing additional support for decision-making, and reducing or even eliminating some dangerous or repetitive tasks.


Nautilus has backed two papers submitted to the meeting by the ITF and the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations. These warned of the potential for confusion arising from the lack of an agreed definition of an autonomous ship and stress the need for more attention to be paid to human/machine interface issues, as well as the interaction between autonomous ships and conventional vessels operating in the same environment.


The seafarer representatives also called for a focus on human element requirements; for shipboard and shore-based personnel, construction and engineering standards for enhanced redundancy and reliability, cyber-security, legal implications regarding jurisdiction and responsibility and accountability for remotely-controlled operations.


The papers included a plea for ‘a degree of caution to ensure that an inappropriate regulatory framework is not hastily put in place in a leap of faith by the IMO on the assurances of technology suppliers’.


Nautilus general secretary, Mark Dickinson, said: “It is absolutely vital that people are not forgotten in the scramble to bring smart ships onto the seas. The debate so far has concentrated too much on technological and economic factors.


“Properly introduced, automation and digital technologies could transform shipping in a positive way – making it safer and more efficient – but managed poorly, they could undermine safety and erode the essential base of maritime skills, knowledge and expertise.


“We hope delegates at the IMO’s maritime safety committee will carefully consider the feedback gathered in the Nautilus Federation survey. There is no knee jerk opposition to technology, but rather a genuine desire to see it used in a way that improves the safety and efficiency of the shipping industry and the working lives of all within it,” he stressed.


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