Autonomous Ships! Is It the End Game for Seafarers?

Autonomous Ships! Is It the End Game for Seafarers?

Autonomous ships have been in the news for a few years now. Successful trials have been carried out.

According to a survey, more than 80% of seafarers have voiced their anxiety about possible job losses with the development of autonomous ships. In the next 20–30 years, will there be no more seafarers? Not so fast.

The Fear Factors

  • The presumed dangers of unmanned ships driven by uncontrolled artificial intelligence.
  • The possibilities of technical errors and hacker attacks.
  • Even the dodging of legal responsibilities and proper maintenance. Let’s look at the facts.


What Is An Autonomous Ship?

Firstly, an “autonomous” ship is not necessarily unmanned. The technical term for autonomous ships is Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). IMO has defined MASS as “a ship which can operate independently of human interaction”.

IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee has defined four degrees of autonomy for MASS.

Degree 1 – A ship with automated process and decision support. Some operations may be automated and at times may be unsupervised, but a seafarer is onboard, ready to take control.
Degree 2 – A remotely controlled ship, operated from another location, but a seafarer is onboard to take control.
Degree 3 – A remotely controlled ship with no seafarers onboard.
Degree 4 – A fully autonomous ship that is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

Legal Barriers

For autonomous ships to be widely in use in commercial shipping, there are a few barriers to overcome, not just technical, but legal and insurance ones as well. A lot of international and local regulations will have to be adjusted.

Here are a few examples.

  • The ISM Code requiring shipowners to “ensure that each ship is manned with qualified, certificated and medically fit seafarers”.
  • SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 5, stating “…all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned”, SOLAS, Chapter V, Reg. 14.
  • The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, Article 94, requiring that each ship must be in the charge of a master “who possesses appropriate qualifications, particularly in seamanship, navigation, communications, and marine engineering”.

Will the introduction of MASS bring a change in the risk or liability profile? If so, will shipowners accept residual risks? Are the COLREGs sufficient to govern MASS?

The competency requirement for the seafarers on MASS will be different and so is the need to revise STCW. And so on…

What Is Being Done By IMO

IMO has recently completed a regulatory scoping exercise on MASS to assess existing IMO instruments to see how they might apply to ships with varying degrees of automation. The regulatory scoping exercise (RSE) for safety treaties was finalised at the 103rd Session of the MSC in May 2021, and for treaties under the purview of the Legal Committee in July 2021.

What Will Be The Future Of Conventional Vessels?

There will be a gradual development and implementation of new technology. Vessels with different levels of autonomy will operate side by side with conventional vessels for the foreseeable future.

By 2040 it is estimated that 11–17 per cent of the global shipping fleet will be autonomous ships with human supervision.

Considering the current world fleet age of 21, the ships built today will still be in operation in 2040. The role of seafarers will change a great deal in the next 20 years, but it is highly unlikely that the world fleet will be entirely unmanned.

The Benefit Of Automation In The Near Future

The autonomous systems are to increase safety, improve environmental performance, and improve cost efficiency. It will assist the crew in safe and efficient operations and automate ship operations and routine work. We will be able to automate some of the most dangerous jobs onboard and reduce the admin burden on the crew.

How Will We Evolve From Conventional Vessels To MASS?

There will be three stages of autonomous shipping development: coexistence, separation and rominence.

Coexistence – The automatic and remotely controlled vessels being operated along with conventional vessels within the framework of the existing regulation. Improving safety, automation of routine functions, better situational awareness, and control will reduce the burden on crew members and the required manning onboard vessels.

Separation – Increase in MASS numbers and areas of operation. It will also offer further opportunities to transfer functions from human to computing systems and remove some of the current regulatory  equirements.

Prominence – The final stage of development. The zones of MASS operation will cover all major transport routes globally. Both the model and regulation of maritime transport will be focused on MASS, and traditional ships will become an exception. The overwhelming majority of seafarers will work either in navigation control centres or in emergency teams.

The New Role For Seafarers?

It is not going to be about driving a ship. It is going to be controlling the system that drives the ships, whether onboard or remotely, whether navigation engineering or the electrotechnical system. Seafaring will progress from being mostly ship-based to mostly shore-based.

The Impact Of Automation On Seafarers’ Jobs

Autonomous ships are more likely to alter jobs than eliminate them. However, the low-skilled jobs which are intensive on predictable physical activities and data processing face a higher risk of being impacted by automation.

At the same time, the further introduction of automation will create demand for new types of jobs, such as remote operators, worldwide operating maintenance crews, and mobility-as-a-service providers.

According to an ICS/BIMCO report, the world economy, as well as the world merchant fleet, is expected to grow in the next ten years. The analyses project that the demand for officers will increase by 10% every five years. Even with autonomous vessels on the scene, the demand for officers with higher qualifications will outstrip the supply.

The Training Needs For Future Seafarers

The technological developments will radically change the employment patterns in the maritime industry in the forthcoming years. Similarly, the skill sets and training needs will also change. The pace of technological change is now so quick that seafarers need to be constantly learning new technology to keep up.

However, the need for qualified mariners at sea will not disappear. In fact, it will grow. The next generation of mariners will need to not only possess the traditional skills of good seamanship but also the new skills of the automated workplace.

We need to attract students who possess the ability to learn and master the skills that will be in high demand across multiple industries. That will give them the flexibility to choose individual career paths and attract talented people to take seafaring as a career. They will not have to sail for 30 years. It will be a place to learn a skill that will help them transition to a job ashore.

In Conclusion

  1. Digital transformation will be a seamless process rather than a disruptive one.
  2. There will be no shortage of jobs for seafarers in the foreseeable future.
  3. There will be considerable additional jobs ashore.
  4. There will be significant training needs.

Technology is changing the marine industry for the better, but people can also grow with it by finding their place in this new automated world. Do not worry!

Tin Maung Tun, Training Director, Uniteam Training