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UK aims to take lead in unmanned vessel apprenticeships

Twin projects aim to give new energy to making shipping and mairtime careers attractive

A pair of UK- based projects could pave the way for approved training for unmanned vessels and a way to attract a new group of youngsters to take an active interest in the maritime industries according to one of the leaders of the projects.

Launched earlier this year one of the two projects could offer school leavers an apprenticeship that brings together seafaring skills and those required for remote vessel operations, either unmanned or autonomous. The other project could lead to discussion on how international regulations could be adapted to bring seafarer training in line with some of the modern and future ways for ships to be operated.

Current training for seafarers, either crews and officers, is stipulated in one of the conventions of the International Maritime Organization. Known in short as STCW, the Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping was adopted in the 1970’s and then revised in 1995 and then 2010 (with the Manilla Amendments).

About five years ago shipping saw an increase in digital tools for onboard use, while at the same time a range of unmanned and autonomous surface craft began to be tested and begin operation.

Developers believe is it only a matter of time that these two issues combine, and one already sees that in the way a Norwegian vessel Yara Birkeland is planned to be operated. The Yara Birkeland is battery-electric small container vessel destined to operate on the South Norway coast shuttling containers for Yara International from a production factory to an export port. The 80 m long vessel will begin life as a manned vessel, but the proposal is to make it unmanned and autonomous.

Many critics point out how developments such as this, and others in the UK and elsewhere, point to how STCW requirements are now outdated and becoming more so as  the role of seafarers in national and international waters and shore based operations emerge.

While today there are some operators that already have control or operations centres to help manage their ships and crews, the application of many modern tools are not a required part of an apprenticeship, meaning young people could be leaving maritime colleges without the skills for a modern industry.

The projects in the UK aims to address that, at least with local rules and for autonomous operations.

Gordon Meadow, CEO, SeaBot XR

Talking about these developments in autonomous systems and training, Gordon Meadow, who chairs the Apprenticeship Trailblazer Group in Autonomous and Remote Vessel Operations says this is a great opportunity for the UK to not only take the lead, but to offer careers of interest to a new generation of school leavers such as young women as well as those with disabilities.

“There is a huge opportunity for young people to get into a fascinating career. There could be a similar appetite to get involved in for both men and women,” he said. “I think there are other opportunities from other people in other sectors who may not have considered a career in maritime before such as those, you know, those not perhaps seen as physically able to perform like this.

“It’s not mandatory to fit a wheelchair ramp on a ship necessarily, but will be on a remote operation centre.”

Meadow’s company, SeaBot XR specialises in advanced training techniques and he has been heavily involved in the UK work on maritime autonomous surface craft.  Earlier in the year, February 2021, Seabot XR teamed up with Fugru the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, to work on training standards which , while initially being UK in focus will lead to recommendations to the IMO for further international development.

Then a month later the Apprenticeship Trailblazer Group in Autonomous and Remote Vessel Operations was announced. It will include representatives from  the UK’s Royal Navy  geo-data specialist Fugro, the United Kingdom National Oceanography Centre, marine robotics company Ocean Infinity and the  Shipowners P&I Club. 

Migration of the workforce

While Meadow and others talk about the ability to make shipping and maritime industries more attractive to youngsters, they also look at it in terms of workforce migration – the need to make the workforce competent in the tools and requirements of a modern industry rather than training them and developing them in out of date or soon to be outdated skills.

“Are there new skills wrapped up in this that the existing seafarers will need to be to be trained in? Yes, there are. That’s being looked at, to some extent, separately. I’ve 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 huge lameness and make the industry more attractive to young people and help them realize that it’s there. And this has huge potential and huge, huge opportunity for careers.

“I think with some of the underlying skill requirements you will need – as more operations centres move forward, the complexity of them will attract other people in the industry.

And will there’ll be jobs? Absolutely, Yes, there are because there’s already a massive shortage of seafarers, as we well know”.

Gordon Meadow was talking to Craig Eason on the latest episode of the Aronnax Show

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.

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