The steps to autonomy: safety first

In only a few years, the discussion of autonomy in shipping has matured from headline-grabbing visions to pragmatic realism. Stakeholders now generally agree that autonomy will not be implemented in a grand sweep, but rather by increments. Then the question becomes one of priorities: what should be the first benefits realized through the stepwise implementation of autonomous technologies?

Efficiency, sustainability and profitability are all plausible answers to this question, but the discussion around the table at the ABB Marine & Ports gathering of maritime experts and authorities in New York last December pointed repeatedly to one primary conclusion: safety.

Invited to kick off the discussion, Allan Krogsgaard, Director of Business Development at classification society DNV GL, set the stage by acknowledging that it will be several years before the advent of commercial, fully automated vessels. “For now, we are still discussing different levels of autonomy and how they could be applied.”

Introducing the theme of ‘safety first’, Krogsgaard noted: “Autonomy is not just about saving money on crew or equipment, but about enhancing safety. For example, giving seafarers more rest, or keeping them from having to enter enclosed or hazardous spaces. DNV GL wants to be on the leading edge of applying this technology, but it has to be about more than just helping companies grow their profits. Safety and quality must stay in focus.”

Michael Carter, Acting Associate Administrator, Environment and Compliance
MARAD
Michael Carter, Acting Associate Administrator, Environment and Compliance MARAD

Michael Carter, Acting Associate Administrator for Environment and Compliance in the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) agreed that autonomous or data driven systems have a place in assisting the mariners to do their jobs, but the mariner still remains key.

First steps first

With the industry taking a step back from sweeping scenarios, moderator John Snyder, Editor of LNG World Shipping and Editor of Offshore Support Journal, asked where the drive to autonomy would find its energy in the coming years.

“Everyone you ask will have a different version of autonomy,” offered Derek Novak, Chief Engineer at the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). “While the basic degrees of autonomy have been laid out by the IMO, our perception is that flag states, owners, and OEMs all want to figure it out in practice. Flags will go forward through their domestic channels first. These projects will relate to simple routes going from A to B, but also work boats like fire-fighting vessels and tugs,” he said.

Novak noted that ABS is taking part in an autonomous tug project in Singapore with ABB and Keppel. During the initial phase of the project, the vessel will complete a series of navigational tasks in a designated test area in the Port of Singapore, steered from an onshore control center. The second phase will see the vessel perform autonomous collision avoidance tasks while under remote supervision. The trials aim to validate the increased safety and efficiency of tug operations by utilizing digital solutions already available today.

“The focus is to be able to mirror a tug’s tasks and predict necessary actions,” Novak said. “First, we will look at augmented operations, then more automation, then autonomous. You have to walk before you can run.”

Ole-Jacob Irgens, Global Sales Manager, PG Propulsion Solutions at ABB Marine & Ports, agreed that focus will be on specialized tonnage first, not least with an eye to crew safety. “First responders like fire fighters are a good example, where the crew could be put in danger. In that light, navies are likely candidates too,” he added.

Ethan Wiseman, Assistant VP, Fleet Manager at NYC Ferry, NYCEDC, commented: “We are seeing opportunities appear on how to supplement the jobs done in the pilothouse, for example by calling attention to critical details when officers are being overwhelmed with information. The risk is that, over time, such tools can become a crutch if crews become dependent on continuous flows of knowledge.”

Ethan Wiseman, Assistant VP, Fleet Manager, NYC Ferry, NYCEDC
Ethan Wiseman, Assistant VP, Fleet Manager, NYC Ferry, NYCEDC

Capt. James C. DeSimone, COO of Staten Island Ferry, commented: “Underwriters and lawyers will have issues with autonomy, and that will keep dependence on machines contained for now. The Captain has an authority that is not easy to remove. For this reason and more, we believe that the transition will come in increments.”

Seeking standards at sea

Krogsgaard pointed out that the maritime industry lags behind aviation in applying automation. “One might think that travelling on water was easier than flying, but automation on ships is far behind airliners.”

Allan Krogsgaard, Director of Business Development, DNV GL
Allan Krogsgaard, Director of Business Development, DNV GL

Palemia Field, Global Marketing Communications Manager, Digital Solutions at ABB Marine & Ports, offered an explanation: “We have to be careful not to benchmark against aviation. The difference between aviation and maritime is that all airline manufacturers must adhere to the same standards. This is not the case with ships. Just look at the work that goes into designing each individual pilothouse.”

Lack of universal standards for data management and the large number of third-party suppliers in shipping compared to aviation were also noted as factors contributing to the overall low level of standardization in the maritime industry.

When boring is better

Rune Braastad, SVP, Division Manager at ABB Marine & Ports US, stated that the business case for automation will likely not be found in crew cost savings. Instead, he believes that autonomy will prove its worth in enabling more efficient operations.

Field supported this argument: “The savings on crew are not significant yet. We might save on salaries by cutting crew, but how much of that would we lose on higher insurance premiums? Remotely monitored and controlled ships will require much more bandwidth and connectivity, and this costs money. The technology is good enough, and the regulatory framework is gradually becoming doable. But what are the overall benefits?”

Krogsgaard emphasized that regulatory requirements should not hinder developments allowed by rapidly emerging technologies. In order to narrow the gap between the possible and the permissible, Krogsgaard tells that DNV GL and their industry colleagues are trying to develop guidelines for automation that may allow broader utilization of available technology.

Regarding technology used to support onboard crew, the comment was made that the maritime industry seems often unsure of what to do with all the information they are collecting. “Big data is a big challenge. We are often not sure what to do with all the information we have access to,” DeSimone commented.

Derek Novak, Chief Engineer, ABS
Derek Novak, Chief Engineer, ABS

“A lot of data collected may not actually be that important or relevant,” Novak observed. “First we need to know which problems we want to solve, then we can properly instrument a vessel in order to measure what we need.”

Field pointed out the importance of makers letting their machines do what they do best: “The greatest need is to use data to assist in making decisions. A lot of accidents today are prevented by human intervention, but the goal is for autonomy to make life boring. Humans like mundane results, and machines are better at doing the dull jobs.”

Ready to face the future?

The group generally agreed that even though machines will take over more tasks from humans, onboard crew will still need to know how things work, if perhaps to a lesser degree.

So how to prepare crews of the future for increasing autonomy onboard? Snyder posed the question to Bradley Golden, professor at Webb Institute: “Students are very interested in the subject of autonomy,” Golden replied. “Right now, there are many post-grad subjects that focus on control systems, and we see a growing interest in applying autonomy to navigation.”

Students at Webb are currently are using a trimaran craft to test autonomy, Golden said, following the stepwise approach currently in favor: “The main challenge is for it to stop before hitting fixed objects. When that is achieved, they will attempt for it to avoid moving objects,” he said. In order to meet future requirements, he emphasized that training institutions must maintain an open dialog with the shipping community: “What we really want to know is what the industry needs.”

But with autonomy continuously evolving, when will the industry be ready to say what it needs? Paul Benecki, Staff Writer for The Maritime Executive, asked how much better autonomous systems have to be before they can be implemented: “I wonder whether the industry really knows what good enough is?”

At this, sentiment around the table rallied behind the benchmark of accountability. Edward Schwarz, Vice President Sales, ABB Marine & Ports US, brought the focus firmly back on safety: “We would simply not consider implementing autonomy where it might introduce a liability.”

The IMO degrees of autonomy

Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated.

Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.

Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.

Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

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