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Ship automation why do we have to care?

The world is changing rapidly under digitalisation. The value of automation emerges when these technologies are applied. Shipping is no exception.

Almost 90 per cent of world trade is carried out by sea so it is impossible to exclude shipping from the main stream of digitalisation. For more than 200 years, the maritime industry has witnessed the introduction of new technologies, such as the change from sail to steam, steam to diesel, coal to oil, oil to low GHG emission fuel, radar and an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). Now it is impossible to picture a ship’s bridge with a traditional wooden steering wheel, unless it’s in a movie. 

In the process of an international trade there are a number of certificates and data that must be exchanged. For instance, a ship needs to be appropriately certified, as well as the cargoes and seafarers aboard. Beside such data, management companies, shipowners, manning agencies, trade unions, and administrations of flag states are also obliged to provide required information to relevant parties. In that regard, digitalised and automated data exchange systems are thought to reduce administrative burdens.

On the other hand, all tasks, watchkeeping duties, and physical and mental challenges for seafarers onboard owing to the nature of ship environment are identified as a cause of seafarers’ fatigue. As a result, improving working and living environment could be a compelling solution for enhancing safety and security. On that note, manufacturers have been trying to develop automation in ships so that seafarers’ physical and mental workloads could be reduced, and the work performance could be improved. 

Ships are as automated as other transport industries in this. But manufacturers in maritime yearn for further automation and digitalization on ships, and there are new technologies in the pipeline. However, due to its great contribution in international trades and its significance in the world economy, legislatures, shipowners, management companies, trade unions, seafarers have no choice but to be careful not to implement technological advancement too hastily. 

In recent years the industry has started discussing unmanned ships. That is a ship that operates without human intervention aboard. The ambitions are to diminish pollution through the use of clean fuel, the protection of the life at sea from any incidents, securing ships and cargoes underpinned by highly encrypted data exchange systems and minimising ships’ turn-around and cargo handling time at ports for customers’ satisfaction. The philosophy behind this aligns with digitalisation and ship automation.

Some international technology companies have also announced plans to build a fully autonomous ship that operates on international voyages without human intervention. On the other hand, although unmanned ships are not the ultimate goal, the world’s largest Danish shipping company Maersk has lately founded a joint project team with IBM for developing and integrating artificial intelligence systems in ship operation. The UK government has pushed for legislative changes under this scenario. China announced the construction of the world’s biggest test site for unmanned ships off the southern port city of Zhuhai in early 2018. They also started researching and developing technologies that are applicable for unmanned ships. The USA has implemented fully autonomous systems in navy vessels, and in the light of this, they are undertaking a thorough examination of its viability in commercial shipping. Japan and Republic of Korea have established task forces for developing unmanned ships focusing on technological applicability as well as consequences without human involvement. Apart from these cases, there are many other countries and entities undertaking similar ones. Whether it is solely about unmanned ships or partial automation, the wave of automation and digitalisation has started. 

Automation and digitalisation have been an evolutionary progress in the shipping industry, and the industry has recognized the hazard of potential impacts by conducting a thorough international regulatory scoping exercise before irreversible consequences could happen. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted ‘Regulatory scoping exercise on Marine Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)’ in 2017 at the 98th session of Maritime Safety Committee and established Working Group. So far, the Organisation has agreed on a definition of the degrees of ship autonomy:

1) Ships with automated processes and decision support, 2) Remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board, 3) Remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board and 4) Fully autonomous ships.

As in other sectors the introduction of new technology needs governments and authorities to amend existing regulations or create new ones. Considering shipping is an international practice, such modification would have to consider a complex political, societal and economic matrix. In addition, cyber security is an increasing threat to the world regardless of borders or business. Accommodating the advanced ICT space will demand an extremely high level of security. Also, investing and implementing new technologies cost a lot of money, which will limit the ability to roll out the technology.

Seafarers are being expected to adapt to such changes. Seafarers welcome digitalisation when it ensures their safety and security. However, historically, technological development, has demanded that seafarers be properly trained. Seafarers had to encounter any drawbacks – even those that could be fatal for them or expose them to pollution threats. To make things worse, seafarers were blamed and sometimes criminalised. Now, seafarers are the one who are anxious of uncertainties that they are going to encounter. Do they deserve this worry while they are the protagonists of 90 per cent of world trade? Seafarers deserve to know what is happening. And we, the ITF, must inform and support seafarers and our affiliates for the future changes.

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