Fathom World

Mapping the transformation of shipping and the oceans


On autonomy, crews, reliability and liability

By Craig Eason, Editorial Director, Fathom.World

CUT out the human from human error then you may just be left with the error.

There’s something of a dichotomy in the maritime industry at the moment. We talk about the need to focus on the crew while also obsessing about autonomous ships.  We talk about a fourth revolution, yet remain hooked on the issue of oversupply and lack of demand.

There’s a sentiment that seems to be going around to suggest that by removing humans from the maritime loop, you will make human error obsolete.

Here’s a random set of harsh beliefs about crews.

They can be abandoned, under paid, poorly treated, criminalised. Some may have career paths that are un-nurtured and not given training on the latest tools the industry has to offer and of course they are prone to making mistakes, either of their own making or as a fault of the system ( I’ll leave the ISM code for another blog, perhaps).

We hear the industry is struggling to recruit school leavers in the right numbers, or with the right skills to take on a maritime career (of course we find it increasingly difficult to decide what such a career is today) while talking about industry disruption, transformation, revolution and general uncertain change.

There is an oversupply of tonnage and an under supply of staff, and now we are talking of a future of autonomous ships, so while there is a shortage of officers and crews today, there may be little need for them in 10 years’ time if some of the futurists predictions are true.

I am not yet so sure these predictions will be true. There are many questions that need to be answered, either by way of how current regulation prevents this, how class and insurance has to accept it, and how society does too. Unmanned vessels coming into ports may yet draw in the same kind of public reaction as nuclear-powered vessels due to the perceptions of risk.

Even the rush of interest in self driving cars, a much easier solution than autonomous ships according to some, has yet to become a mainstream solution in society despite the promise.

Yes the technology to achieve autonomous cars and ships is there, but there’s not yet the full infrastructure to achieve it, nor the full trust in that infrastructures reliability. And in some places there will be some doubt if it ever will. The picture I have used to illustrate this blog is of the crew of a Russian polar-class tanker that I was on-board a few of years ago. The challenges of ice navigation and loading crude oil from a remote offshore platform in the Arctic are unlikely to be met any time soon through autonomous operations. The cost of making the systems for such a vessel  would far outweigh the salaries of the crew. However the same is not true for all corners of society.

So for the next generation of school leavers there will still be a role for them at sea and in other parts of the larger maritime and shipping sectors. The difference will be that it will be them that should be given autonomy (and here I mean autonomy as a form of operational support) first and it is likely that it will be them that develop it further and bring it to maturity.

Technology should empower crews, and pilots, those experienced (many former ship masters) professionals that assist the maneuvering of a vessel into port.

There’s talk about the potential to do this pilot job remotely, and perhaps it can be, but there has yet again to be this trust question answered, and with that comes again the issues of reliability and liability.

The f-word blog aims to offer a personal opinion, from the Fathom Editorial team, of events and trends in the developing transformation of the shipping industry.

About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.