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On the threshold of autonomous ships

denmark autonomous ships
Image hereabove is used for illustration purposes only

Mark Bull, Marine Consultant, Trafalgar Navigation, pointed out that we are on the threshold of a major change in our industry; it has already started and it is now picking up speed. During his presentation at the 2017 SAFETY4SEA Conference, he said that the new ‘buzz’ word around us now is autonomous; however, many things need to be considered about that. The knock on effect is far reaching and doubtless will require many conventions to be overhauled or dropped completely, new training systems to be developed, new control centres to be established, decisions made on responsibility and so. He highlighted that history can always teach us and we need to learn from the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the autonomous era.

We are on the threshold of a new era in our industry and of course I am referring to autonomous ships. One of the basic tenets of loss prevention is “lessons to be learnt”. Let us not repeat the same mistakes. In technical terms, lessons learned are known as lagging indicators. Sadly the principal is not working; history teaches us that we do not learn from the past. The Pasha Bulker incident is one example. The bulk carrier ran aground in Australia ten years ago, but since then, sadly, we see similar incidents repeating around the world. My theory was that the system was not working because of different ship types, geographical areas, or P&I Clubs. Just this year however four accidents have occurred, highlighting the trend that the message is not getting through. The grounding on the river Elbe and the grounding on the river Schelde of containerships and the two consecutive collisions of warships during this summer. These confirm my statement that but disprove my reasoning. In these cases we had the same company, same ship type, same geographical area and same flag. Also, the warships belonged to the same nation. Normally, when a company suffers a serious accident, the message is learned very quickly and all steps are taken to avoid repetition. However, these tragedies mentioned are one example that the system is not working.

As I have already mentioned, we are on this new threshold This is going to herald in a new era of shipping. It will turn many things on their head, i.e. what is going to happen to STCW, who will be the persons responsible for the unmanned vessels. Surely, the new era is going to keep the lawyers busy for years. So; have the designers and developers considered history?

If we go back in time to the 6os, it was a time of tremendous changes in society starting with space exploration. New words started to appear in our vocabulary such as cosmonaut, astronaut, satellite. We had the heros of the time, i.e. Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong. Even the vehicles that we used came for this new world. But when you start something that is totally new, there are also the unexpected things that come along. Who could have imagined that the Apollo One would suffered a fire simply because it was filled with the most life-supporting gas available, pure O2? Not only was space exploration the buzz word of that time but aviation was an undergoing huge change. We had aircraft being designed to take off and land vertically. Supersonic aircraft designed to cross the Atlantic in less than half the time of the current aircraft and yet more passenger can carry up to 400 people. When you make things faster and bigger, the problem is that when the accidents happen, the consequences are alike.

Shipping was not immune from these changes. Containerization developed when I started my seagoing career. The UK flag had 12 container ships in the fleet at that time! At the same the VLCC was developed along with large ROROs. Again, big accidents followed.

For the autonomous ships, the question is what the developers are thinking of. Maybe, they are not thinking anything particular currently because that type of problem is not around. Are they casting their net wide enough to ask experienced people in the industry, if they got any ideas that they may be have thought about? There is a lot of thought about disruptive technology but have the same people heard about disruptive regulations, disruptive personnel and disruptive equipment? Sadly, the regulators tend to lag a little bid behind. Normally, first an accident will happen and then the regulation follows. Regarding disruptive personnel, we hear a lot comments about the competence of the officers on board. I have found that there is a lot of unlocked potential and they only require a little bit of direct assistance on board by someone with the right experience to start doing things properly. Overall, have we learned anything from history? Because, this is a big change coming and we need to start thinking about getting it right. We have just undergone a clear example and that has been the introduction of ECDIS onboard the bridges of ships and which has totally overhauled how a bridge is run. Let us not make the same mistakes of the past and be too late in identifying the necessary changes.

Above text is an edited article of Mark Bull’s presentation during the 2017 SAFETY4SEA Conference.

You may view his video presentation by clicking here.

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only. 

About Mark Bull, Marine Consultant, Trafalgar Navigation

I commenced my career in 1970 as a cadet with P&O S.N. Co. I spent the next 27 years at sea, with a 2 year sabatical in the late 1980s when I trained, qualified and practiced as a techer of English as a 2nd language. After 5 years in command, I came ashore qualified as an ISM and ISO lead auditor and joined a large ship management company ending up as the QM/DPA for a large fleet and 3  offices. After a brief spell as a consultant, I then moved to London where I became the Loss Prevention Manager of an IG P&I Club. Since 2012 I have been an independent consultant and have now started my own company Trafalgar Navigation dedicated to Navigational Audits, Assessments and Inspections.

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