Smart shipping and the human element

Smart Shipping

The term “Autonomous” is one of the buzzwords within the shipping community today. But what do we mean by autonomous vessels? And how might this impact our industry, particularly, in terms of the human element.

But, what do we mean, when we talk about autonomous ships. Are we talking about fully automated ships or merely levels of autonomy that will change the need of crews both onboard and ashore? The latter is a much more realistic scenario that is indeed likely to take place soon enough. And it will be ship types and trade lanes that will be the main parameters to define the crew still needed onboard, when it will be needed especially close to shore, what kind of crew and with what qualifications, etc.

Furthermore, it will also need to be assessed which current functions could be moved to shore-based control centres as well as what new functions would need to be developed according to the STCW as it is now or as it will evolve in the future.
This will greatly depend on our understanding of the human element in shipping. It has been stressed for years that the human element is responsible for over 80% of errors and accidents. On the other hand, it has never been stressed enough that the human element is also responsible for the vast number of safe voyages, goods transported on time and accidents prevented.

Levels of autonomy are already in place through digitization and digitalization, leading to what is known as “smart shipping”. It is, of course, digitalization - the transformation of process and models due to digital changes – that may impose disruptions and certainly require significant change management.

In order for companies to embrace these changes, one needs to consider how disruptive this could be to the company’s approach in terms of roles, procedures and human capital. Roles may need to be redefined, skills developed and assessed, changes communicated effectively, and people trained in a way that will enable them to take up their new responsibilities and tasks aiming at commercial viability and safety. At the end of the day what counts is that any change must make economic sense and lead to enhanced safety.

The true challenge regarding autonomous ships is not whether we can technologically achieve the maximum level of autonomy. This can be done and has already taken place at a large degree. The issue is to ensure that they are sufficiently safe or have a tolerable risk level. This will need to be defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and flag states for any given operation. Furthermore, we will need to support this with regulations and instruments that will address the complexity of the topic.

We, in DNV GL, have published a position paper on “REMOTE-CONTROLLED AND AUTONOMOUS SHIPS” explaining how we address the issue in an effort to assist the maritime community take the optimum decisions having considered all aspects, technological, economic, safety and social.

We must ensure that our drives towards technological achievements include besides efficiency and costs savings, safety and responsibility concerns.

Progress cannot be stopped and actually, we should not want to stop it but rather use it to our benefit.

By Dr. Marina Papaioannou – DNV GL’s Maritime Academy Hellas

Read more on: 

1) Seafarers and digital disruption (HSBA Hamburg School of Business Administration, 2018)