Challenges of Maritime Automation

December 7, 2017 11:09 am

There has been so much talk of late about the increasing automation that is about to be unleashed on shipping. What are the challenges and how can we ensure training is properly carried out, as we transition from old to new world?



You know when things are getting serious when new Codes of Conduct start appearing, and so as Maritime UK has launched a new Industry Code of Practice for the design, construction and operation of autonomous maritime systems, it signals a new era.

The Code provides practical guidance for autonomous and semi-autonomous vessels less than 24 metres long, and the Industry Code of Practice will provide guidelines while more detailed regulatory framework for autonomous systems begins to evolve.

It is designed to set initial standards and best practice for all those involved with the development and operation of autonomous systems. It covers design, manufacturing, safety, communication and navigation through to training and skills.

This all comes at a fascinating juncture, as the UK Ship Register has signed its first-ever unmanned vessel to the flag, the ASV Global’s “C-Worker 7”. This registration represents what the UK Register terms an adaptation “to the changes of the maritime industry”.



Future logistics in shipping

Future of semi-manned ships

The vessel “C-Worker 7” will be used for work such as subsea positioning, surveying and environmental monitoring. It can be used under direct control, semi-manned or completely unmanned.

This perhaps hints at the more realistic middle term view of where the industry is going. The technologists and futurists may wish to believe that the changes to shipping will be exponential, but in such a conservative industry it is the baby steps that are far more likely to take us to our destination.

So, it seems that vessels which have autonomous capabilities will be starting to arrive into the market ever more frequently. However, it is likely that they will often be under direct or semi human control. At least for the next few years.

A lot can happen in a few years, and you can have many accidents if this change is not managed properly and effectively. That is the big fear – the technology is wonderful, but if it isn’t harnessed properly, then it could be almost too frightening to use. It will take one big accident in these early days, and the whole experiment could be seriously set back.



The UK Government has recently announced that autonomous car tests will be conducted on the nations roads. Which will be a fascinating development, but one could be tempted to leave the car at home and take the train for a couple of weeks while the experiment starts up.

Undoubtedly there will be teething pains, and whether it is roads of sea lanes – there it is hard to introduce such great leaps forward in technology, while also maintaining elements of the status quo.

That is really the challenge – how will autonomous vessels react to ships controlled by humans? Will human navigators begin to develop bad habits? Knowing that autonomous vessels will get out of the way, will there be a temptation for the older, less technical ships to plough on regardless?

There are so many potentially unintended consequences, and it will likely take some time…and some accidents, before the real picture begins to look clearer. That said, it is time now to ensure that shipping is fit for future purpose, and training is a massive part of this.



Adapt to changes

Adapt to changes

The old adage runs, you train for the known and educate for the unknown. That is perhaps the situation shipping now finds itself in. The old certainties of the COLREGS, of dealing with fellow navigators and watch keepers is changing – so we are facing unknown challenges.

This means that education has to change and become more evolved. We cannot simply churn out the next generation of watch keepers with an eye on how things used to be done.

We need to adapt, and ensure that they have the skills of the past, but also the ability to work in an operational environment which contains unmanned vessels. You might be thinking that technology will usurp mariners so quickly, that this will not be a problem.

That view is wholly reasonable, but there are many, many vessel types which will have people on them for a long time to come. It would be very hard to see cruise ships becoming fully automated, for instance. While lest we forget, people still enjoy the sea…and so the leisure market will continue to see millions of people take to the water. That means that unmanned ships will rarely have the waters to themselves.



That means, that demise of seafarers has been greatly exaggerated. Even Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most vocal proponent of this technology has stated that while autonomous vessels are the ultimate goal, the deal will also see the development of systems that can improve the efficiency of existing ships.

Much of the sensor technology which has been developed with autonomous ships in mind, can today give existing crews the upper hand. Giving watchkeepers an enhanced view of their surroundings will go a long way to creating a safer operating environment. So, it seems even without the seismic shift of autonomy, there are advantages coming our way.

The biggest challenge is to ensure that seafarers can make best use, and to harness the new technology.  The “intelligent awareness systems” are amazing, and can rightly benefit maritime businesses but there is still work to be done. There is so much pressure on seafarers. They need to have so many traditional skills, but also the means of working with some of the most advanced systems around.

A major part of this is appreciating the challenges facing crews. A watchkeeper could be on some low tech mid-90s vessel one month, and then a state of the art ship the next. This is a change that needs managing. If we don’t prepare people, if we don’t manage expectations, then accidents will ensue. Now is the time to consider how we merge technology, training and seafarers.


What do you think? How can the seafarers of today be supported to embrace the technology and challenges of tomorrow? We would love to hear from you, so please get in touch.