Aronnax: training for autonomy/electronic lookouts on ships

This episode looks at attracting youngsters into shipping with an apprenticeship focused on autonomy and unmanned ships and how technology can be the eyes and ears of a ship officer on the bridge (as a proposed electornic lookout function).


Gordon Meadow, CEO, SeaBot XR

Eero Lehtovaara, Head of Regulatory Affairs, ABB

Industry updates from

Nick Chubb, Founder, Thetius


Craig Eason, Fathom.World

Full transcript below

Craig Eason

 Hello and welcome to the Aronnax Show. This is a podcast looking at the shipping and maritime space. I’m Craig Eason, and I own and edit the Fathom World news site focused on the changing aspects of our industry.

I’ll tell you something about myself quickly. I’m an ex-seafarer. I worked as a navigation and deck officer, deep sea on the bridge of many different ship’s and it was a career I was and still am proud of, even if I did not do what so many of my fellow apprenticeship friends did at the time and go on to become master mariners.

I chose to go into journalism instead.

Over the years the role of the mariner has changed. You can see many articles on Fathom World and find episodes of the Aronnax Show about this transformation as new levels of connectivity and technology have developed.  Society itself is trying to tackle this change too, and we have a range of discussions in many corners of many of our industries about autonomy, autonomous systems and so on.

Now, I’ve quite often railed against those headlines that state that fleets of ghost robot ships are coming. These are sensationalist headlines. Reality has never got in the way of a good headline.

But having said that, the way technology is going and with the discussions at the International Maritime Organization on which regulations prohibit their appearance, we know that something is changing. What is happening though is technology is creating a new dynamic onboard vessel, and yes, they may coalesce into increased autonomy, and even unmanned ships in some corners in the future. But today on this episode of the Aronnax Show I want to look at two things that are happening that are more immediate next steps.

Two things are happening on a regulatory front now that I think make a big difference. The first is a pair of submissions that are going into the regulatory body the International Maritime organization that is asking it to consider the idea of an electronic lookout function, something that those supporting the idea believe is a required part of having periodically unmanned ship bridges. And the word ‘periodically’ is important here.

The proposal has a lot to do with all round video cameras and elephant ears on a ship. More on that later


Now, my cadetship was in the 1980’s It involved learning morse code, and how to use Decca and even Loran-C. I remember sat in a former world war military bunker style building in Plymouth England looking at the swirling green radar screens and a Decca chart with its multicoloured tramlines. And yes, the sextant. That’s all history or nearly all, history.

Today’s apprentice in the UK still must learn about seafaring and some of  the skills of electronic navigation.

But it’s getting even more complicated, and now there’s the growing awareness of autonomy. So how do we get kids to leave school and join an industry which on the one hand has been an unpopular choice in recent years, but has the potential to be so so different.

In the UK, a group has come together to look at how an apprenticeship can be developed that caters for this. It’s looking at the development of a new type of apprenticeship bearing in mind the increased amount of autonomy that is appearing in civilian and naval craft. That’s not just autonomy on the ship for onboard crew, but also for remote operations. The group was announced last month and consists of the UK’s Royal Navy, the geo-data company Fugru, the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, marine robotics business Ocean Infinity. And it is being chaired by UK advanced training business Seabot XR.

Gordon Meadow, CEO Seabot XR told me about the plans and why it is important:

Gordon Meadow, SeaBot XR

The apprenticeship is a response in industry need. Operators want to operate in a responsible way, and they have a workforce that has been built on experience at sea, and they’re now being given the opportunity to use autonomous systems and new ways of working. So, there’s a gap, and this apprenticeship will look towards identifying that skills gap, mapping those competencies and creating a new workforce with more enhanced skills, but this is simply about training the people who are going to be operating vessels today, not about the future, not about, you know, sort of this kind of fanciful idea that, you know, all ships will be autonomous in the next 10 years. This is this is simply about taking a responsible approach to the migration of the workforce, and the workforce is underpinned by seafaring and STCW qualifications –  really that’s paramount that experience. Now projecting forward 30 -40-50 years any occupation will change, you know, any occupation will change will you need to have gone to see in 50 years’ time, who knows? Bu  for the time being the key migration is of this is the current and existing maritime workforce and that knowledge that neds to come with it – that experiential knowledge.

Craig Eason

Now autonomous craft that the apprenticeship group are looking at are up to around 24 m in length, but there are plans to go bigger, with Ocean Infinity, one of the apprenticeship development group partners already looking at 70 m vessels This apprenticeship looks at it from an operational point of view from how you control them, how you maintain control, maintenance issues.

It’s important to realise that this programme to develop an apprenticeship is not about international shipping, that requires, as Meadow says work at the IMO on the seafarer training requirements. Many people agree that these need updating, but it would be an enormous task as any changes need to encompass shipping for today as well as the future, and everywhere in the world.

Gordon Meadow, SeaBot XR

This UK apprenticeship isn’t, isn’t based on developing international standards around the world. This is responding to responsible operators operating their craft in and around UK waters and more broadly. But this will capture the operators’ requirements, which we can then feedback up through the system, for the likes of the maritime and Coastguard agency and say look, actually, these are the competencies we have identified through this group.

There’s also a top-down approach where the MASSPpeople group was launched – I think two weeks ago now – where to Seabox XR, Fugru and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency are founder members. That group consists of a number of flag states and which will look at the standards required internationally, and try and benchmark those standards, and then share those standards, and create new standards and then create recommendations to go to IMO and say, “Look, this, these are the recommendations, we think that should be added in terms of competencies to STCW”.

Craig Eason

In my interview with Gordon Meadow, he kept the focus on the people, and the need to ensure it is about skills, not systems, robots and software. In his opinion we all need to challenge a rhetoric that machines are good, and the human is bad. Seafaring skills remains as crucial as ever.

But it is about a migration of the workforce, about writing down the new skills that existing seafarers will need.

Gordon Meadow, SeaBot XR

And that’s, I guess, that’s, that’s being looked at, to some extent separately, by the you know, but by Maritime UK, they MNTB and that the Maritime Skills Commission, we’re interested in looking at a particular new developing occupation, which is quite a sexy occupation. I think, you know, I think I have always found it to my amazement, that the, there’s this sea blindness, and I think, I think they’re really trying to make an effort are really trying to make an effort in the UK to be able to remove this Sea blindness and make the industry more attractive to young people and help them to help them to realize that it’s there, and this has huge potential and huge, huge opportunity for careers.

I know that one champion, one person showing this is Sarah Kenny, from BMT. She’s really trying to shine the light and shine a light on this. So, for me, there is a huge, huge opportunity for young people on this to get into a career that would be, you know, a fascinating career to get into it’s a new avenue into maritime, and it’s also a new avenue into maritime, which would provide perhaps a similar appetite to get involved in for both men and women. And there’s two there’s a there’s a, there’s kind of there’s a gender equality issue too, as well. And as well, I think there are other opportunities from other people in other sectors who may not have considered career maritime before such as those, you know, those not perhaps seen as physically able to be able to perform.

You know, it’s not mandatory to to fit a wheelchair ramp on a ship necessarily, but it will be on a remote operation centre. So, so there are lots of opportunities for new entrants into it. I think, with some of the underlying skill requirements you will need as operations centres move forward. And the complexity of them, it will attract other people in the industry. And will there be jobs? Yes, there are because there’s already a massive shortage in the industry of seafarers, as we as we will know. So, will there be jobs going forward? Absolutely. 

Craig Eason

Gordon Meadow from Seabot XR on the evolution of the seafarer and a new breed of people who will need to work in operation centres, ones who will not necessarily need to walk on the deck.

Now while Meadow says these UK initiatives on training and apprenticeship are focused on the new generation, there is still the existing workforce at sea, those spending months on end on a ship. Those on a bridge watch spend those months with a broken sleep pattern, four-hour bridge watches once every twelve hours, with other duties expected to be completed in the non-watch periods. And this is where the idea of a Bridge Zero function first materialised. Yes it can be seen as a step towards unmanned ships, but it has its initial purpose on welfare and safety.

It is the idea that under certain times a bridge can be left unmanned while the vessel is underway.  Those conditions would have to be very specific- clear visibility, good weather, zero traffic in the proximity etc.

Now to allow that situation to be permitted the International Maritime Organization is being asked to accept technology as a suitable replacement for the eyes and ears of the watch officer or a watchkeeper.

The proposal is going to come from the European Union into IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, but the idea has been developed in Finland.

One of the proponents is Eero Lehtovaara, who is head of regulatory affairs at engineering firm ABB.

I have spoken to Eero, a former maritime officer and captain, many times of the years as the ideas for autonomy have developed, looking at how digitalization and autonomy can increase safety for those onboard as opposed to the idea of taking people off the ship.

It is an important distinction for Eero and helps frame the discussion. Is digitalisation and autonomy about unmanned ships per-se, or about increased safety and welfare for those on the ship?

 Eero Lehtovaara ABB

If we’re starting to, to do something that will even at some level substitute the human, even if it will be for a shorter period of time, we need to be first of all, we need to be sure that we are right that it’s actually better.

But then we know that that is something we call the social licence to do to to operate. Meaning that you and I, when we see technology, we expect that technology to be way better than what we can do. And there’s this kind of expectation, meaning also that on a modern-day cruiser, or car carrier, you could say that you don’t have the best visibility straight behind you. There will be an expectation of full coverage of 360 degrees, and continuous scan and so on. We also learned and this is obviously something where we talk about the scientific research that is far outside of our area of competence.

I mean, ophthalmologists, who research the eye, and so on, so we used material that we can find on the subject. And then it was quite interesting in the sense that, first of all, if we are focusing the eyes somewhere, we physically tend to lose everything around us. And you can only focus. I mean, if you’re focusing somewhere far, then you tend to lose things that are happening close and vice versa, and so on.

Also, if you’re focusing on a point far ahead, you’re not only lose movement and seeing on the periphery, but that you’re very early, also starting to lose colours, which was news for me. Meaning that if you have a theoretical situation where you have a ship coming against ahead of you, or you’re in a collision course head-to-head, you focus on that ship. That means that you stop seeing things around you. Obviously with machine learning machine machines doing that, you would not have that issue because they would monitor continuously around you.

Craig Eason

And this is where Elephant Ears and the Snellen chart – you know it as that pyramid of letters at the opticians that decrease in size as you read down. For an optician, a person with normal eyesight has an eight on the Snellen scale and a seafarer must pass an eye test and get more than five. Hearing is also tested.

Now hearing is one area where the regulations already allow for technology. This is the Elephant Ears. Quite a few ships are built today with totally enclosed bridges, that means the bridge wings are not out in the open air. One of the requirements under international rules is for ships to have specific audio signals (such as in fog) and an officer or watchkeeper in a totally enclosed bridge will be unable to hear those signals. Hence the development of a technology that is basically a microphone outdoors feeding into a speaker or alarm system indoors.

Eero Lehtovaara points to this as a first step in how the electronic lookout function would work, as this and the required cameras that would point all around a vessel would be coupled to a system capable of recognition that there is something there and then sounding the alarm.

Eero Lehtovaara ABB

We talk about three different levels or stages. What they are calling the DRI – the detection, recognition and identification. And what we presented in the electronic lookout function is really the D part -detection. So, the aim is to detect that there’s something else outside than water. Period. In its lowest level that will make an alarm, and someone, a human will come up and then make the recognition and the identification and after that the decisions.

I mean, at this stage, I would say that machines are better today at detecting than people are, but people are way better in recognition than the machines are today and able to make conclusions and take that further into decisions and in actions. So, obviously, we see that if you’re ever going to have an unmanned ship, they need to be able to do all of these, based on first detection, what is it what it’s going to be doing? How is that reflected into col-regs and so on and so on. But at its lowest level, in order to be able to fulfil the requirements of B-0, just detection is enough. If we can detect that there are things there, then we get the alarm, and somebody is coming to the bridge. And then we will be able to make the necessary right decisions then

Craig Eason

Eero Lehtovaara on the possible way a manned ship could occasionally sail with an electronic lookout function allowing for a bridge or wheelhouse to be unmanned, while the watchkeeper and officer of the watch do other things.

While this potential work at the IMO on the electric lookout function may be for a stand-alone alarm system connected to the OOW who remains on standby if an alarm sounds, there is no doubt this function can be connected to other bridge technology. In its simplest form it is a series of high-resolution cameras giving an overlapping 36o degree coverage of a ship potentially as far as the horizon, going forward this can be part of the further digitalisation of a ship to give even greater situational awareness, with the lookout function an integral part of a digital sensing brain also linked to the radar, GPS, electronic displays and charts as well as other systems.There are smaller vessels already doing this, just look at the Mayflower project with an IBM brain inside is.


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