It might sound like science fiction, but it’s not — flag states around the world are reviewing equipment, training, and approval processes for autonomous vessels. Virtually all vessel types are being considered for autonomous or remote operations. Recently, the IMO has undertaken several working groups as they work towards some agreement as to what the Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Code should look like and what stakeholders feel are important or salient details. Obviously, there are serious safety concerns for these operations, but as recent tech improvements have shown, there’s a real potential to share the seas with autonomous, semi-autonomous, or remote-operated vessels, soon.
As to what this would entail, the IMO has identified four automation levels that must be considered. These range from a ship with automated processes and decision-support systems, to remotely operated vessels with limited crew on board controlled from a shore station, to remotely operated vessels without crew, to a fully autonomous vessel that makes its own decisions and acts without human involvement. The initiatives driving this tech have provided a fairly rapid progression from conversation to theoretical to concept to actual vessel trials. Military and civilian trials of all four automation levels have already occurred, which have shown the technology has potential. All of us, to some extent, employ automation or autonomous technology — like autopilots and ARPAs that are integrated to provide maneuvering for collision avoidance or automatic course changes. These would be considered a level 1 automation type — that is, a system that has automated processes and decision-support systems.
Recent trials serve as demonstration vehicles, such as one in Japan where a fully autonomous 95-meter container vessel successfully completed a 790-kilometer round trip in the highly congested Tokyo Bay while being monitored by a shoreside command facility. The U.S. Navy has an Unmanned Surface Vessel Division that sent four large experimental vessels to participate in RIMPAC 2022, which had more than 40 ships from 26 countries engage in a multi-month interactive exercise. These experimental craft are more than 170 feet (51 meters) long and are capable of speeds in excess of 20 knots — definitely not small boats puttering around! The 175-foot LUSV (large unmanned surface vessel) Nomad completed a 4,421-nautical-mile trip with nearly 98 percent of the trip in autonomous mode, joining other U.S. Navy LUSVs and medium USVs as they rack up the miles and provide feedback data to developers.
So, what do these trials and pending regulations mean, and why are countries around the world looking at commercial and military applications? One of the biggest reasons is also one of the largest obstacles — safety. The technology’s proponents say it will protect people and the environment by allowing reduced or zero manning on board vessels employed in hazardous, dangerous, or routine services.
The training of the mariners who will operate or serve on board these vessels may look very different than it does today, but I think the core skills that make a mariner will still be present.
Opponents say that a computer can never replace a mariner and that the idea of vessels running without a crew is dangerous. There is obviously a common-sense element to both arguments, which is why flag states around the world and the IMO are looking hard at what needs to be done to make these vessels commercially viable. I was fortunate to be able to help lead some of those discussions last year and saw firsthand both sides presenting their rationale for their positions, along with companies that are actively conducting trials with the technology.
While I believe it will be quite some time before we see unmanned ships — and we’ll probably never see an unmanned yacht — what we will see is vessels with increasingly automated system functions on board that will either reduce the number of crew needed or allow crew on board to focus on certain key areas of service and responsibilities.
Operating autonomous vessels may not be as easy as you think, either. The current thinking sees the creation of shoreside command and monitoring facilities that are fully equipped bridges that will engage via a link to the ship(s) to monitor and override when needed. You may have completed your training on a full mission ship simulator — imagine a scenario where a facility like that is linked to real-world vessels engaged in real-world voyages, but with the captain and bridge crew monitoring from shore.
We have already seen automation technology become more present in our industry, whether it’s the autopilot, the electronic chart systems that have replaced paper charts, or the dynamic positioning systems that can maintain position
or follow a track line as well as the saltiest of captains. Autonomous, or semi-autonomous, vessels are one way that many companies and countries are looking at answering the ever-increasing mariner shortage.
That’s not to say they envisage a time with no mariners, but certainly all you have to do is to look at the shrinking size of vessel crew numbers around the world over the past 50 years to see the impacts of automation. For example, a coastwise tanker in the 1950s would have 45 to 55 crew on board; fast forward to the 2000s and the same size vessel had around 25, and now 20 years later many have around 16 to 20.
As these new regulations come online, there will be new or changing training requirements as well. The training of the mariners who will operate or serve on board these vessels may look very different than it does today, but I think the core skills that make a mariner will still be present. Stay tuned for updates as the IMO puts pen to paper and brings an evolutionary standard to this interesting step in our industry.
This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Dockwalk.