Fully Autonomous Vessels "Unrealistic"

autonomous ship

Published Sep 11, 2016 9:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

Captain Samrat Ghosh and Trudi Hogg of the Australian Maritime College at the University of Tasmania have published a paper stating that belief in the reliability of fully autonomous vessels is unrealistic.

Research in the design and development of fully autonomous and unmanned merchant vessels could reduce human error and provide financial savings through crew salaries and the omission of crew accommodation. These vessels, monitored from land, will require high-quality and reliable communication systems between the unmanned ship and shore. The communication systems are critical for safety and security and will come at a high cost, says Ghosh.

“It is proclaimed that the incidence of human error will be significantly decreased on the unmanned merchant ship,” he says. “However, the onboard technology requires calibration and maintenance by humans and the vessel requires constant monitoring from a shore control room where operators will be interpreting, absorbing and acting on information sent from the ship. Human error risks are not eliminated and the unmanned vessel will face new challenges for safe operation and monitoring, as shore operators seek to obtain awareness of the vessel and its surrounds.”

Ghosh says that even though the technical concepts for unmanned vessel operation are well established, studies on human interaction with the systems are not as prevalent. The maritime and seafaring industry require further evidence of the validation of the technology before the long-term effects of fully automated vessels can be measured, he says.

Complacency is one issue of concern. “Automation decreases the load of information processing required by the operator. However, vigilant monitoring of automated systems for failure and unanticipated states is often effected by complacency of the operator and over-dependence on the automation.

“The reliability of the automation system will determine the trust an operator has in the system, and this may become dangerously excessive the longer the unmanned vessel has been operating without failure.”

The researchers say that it remains uncertain how liability will be attributed to the relevant persons involved in the operation of the unmanned ship and if existing regulations will be altered to compensate for their operation or if they will be defined as an entity other than “vessel.”

New skills will be required, and old skills may be lost over time. The shore crew required to operate unmanned ships will involve a new level of aptitude to manage and analyze data, an attractive opportunity for some, whilst raising concerns about training and certification for others, says Ghosh. “An experienced Master remains a requirement to helm the vessel from ashore, but as specialized shore crew age how will these experienced mariners be replaced if there are less crew gaining first-hand experience of actually working at sea?”

With so much investment in making autonomous ships a reality, what will the cost be to humans, ask the researchers Will future operators be trained on automated systems and will this suffice to acquire expertise in ship handling from a sensory-deficient environment such as the shore control room?

Technical, operational and legislative concepts are at the forefront of research, but there is still much work required to prove the unmanned ship is not a risk to itself, its cargo, the environment or other ships, by demonstrating reliable object detection and effective collision avoidance, says Ghosh. Repetitive proof that human operators can deal with a critical situation from ashore is still required, he says.

The research has been published in the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.