IMO event focuses on automation and its implications for the global shipping industry

31 December 2018

With automation very much the hot topic in shipping, there was an opportunity at the IMO in December 2018 for maritime professionals from across the globe to quiz the hi-tech engineering companies leading the revolution. SARAH ROBINSON reports…

The International Maritime Organisation's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) has a proud record of developing and implementing the international regulations that help keep seafarers safe – from the COLREGs to shipbuilding standards. The Committee recently saw its 100th session, and to mark the occasion, a special event was held at IMO headquarters in London on 3 December 2018.

Although the event started with a look back at MSC achievements, the main focus was on the future, with three speakers invited to give presentations on automation and its implications: Kevin Daffey of Rolls-Royce, Branko Berlan of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and Timo Koponen of Wärtsilä.

The day of the MSC event had been a highly significant one for Rolls-Royce, noted Mr Daffey. In Finland, just a few hours earlier, the company had successfully carried out a voyage demonstrating Svan, its new remote-controlled and autonomous ferry navigation system – claimed to be the first of its kind. The voyage had been made possible, Mr Daffey pointed out, by the Finnish government passing legislation to regulate the use of autonomous vessels in the country's domestic waters.

The only other country to have developed such regulations is Norway, and in his presentation, Mr Koponen spoke of Wärtsilä’s own work to trial an autonomous vessel in Norwegian waters. We should no longer talk about automation happening in the future, added Mr Daffey: 'The technology is here!'

But how should the global shipping industry deal with these developments, and what will the impact be on seafarers? With delegates present from IMO member nations worldwide, the MSC event allowed some very knowledgeable and experienced maritime professionals to challenge the speakers in the panel on their claims and predictions.

International regulations could take as long as 10 years to develop, and there are some vessels which may never be suitable for unmanned voyages

Branko Berlan was first to raise a note of caution about the new world of autonomous shipping, using his presentation to point out that, when it comes to maritime safety, technology is not necessarily better than human decision-making. 'It's a misconception that accidents are primarily caused by seafarer error,' he said. In fact, he claimed, trained maritime professionals onboard ships are much more likely to avert accidents than cause them, and they often step in to solve problems caused by faulty technology. Seafarers will remain indispensable, he stressed.

Mr Koponen said that the main thrust of Wärtsilä's development work was to use 'augmented reality' to enhance seafarers' abilities rather than replace humans. In his presentation, he demonstrated different viewing modes for a device that could allow navigators to see the view from the bridge with information about surrounding vessels and potential hazards superimposed onto these objects in real time.

Another point about the role of seafarers in autonomous shipping was later raised in a question from the floor. Kevin Daffey had spoken of new job opportunities for seafarers in shore-based remote operation centres – which could be attractive for being more family-friendly than going away to sea. However, one delegate asked how officers could rise through the ranks and be trained to become shipmasters capable of remote operation if they no longer went to sea in significant numbers. The panel agreed that it was very important for the IMO to consider this issue in the next few years, and Mr Daffey conceded that there were some vessels which may never be suitable for unmanned voyages, such as those carrying dangerous cargoes.

Regarding the regulatory framework for autonomous and remotely-operated vessels, there was consensus in the room that international standards and regulations would be very challenging to develop. Mr Daffey said that this work could take the IMO as long as 10 years, and he urged individual flag states to follow Finland and Norway's lead in developing national legislation so they could benefit from the new technology more quickly in their own waters.

Mr Berlan added that, from the seafarer's perspective, the biggest regulatory issue was assigning the share of responsibility and liability between ship and shore. 'There is lots of legal work to be done on this,' he stressed. He also stated that, in his view, fully autonomous vessels should never be permitted to operate internationally.

On the technological side, one questioner raised a point that must have occurred to many in the room: what happens if an autonomous or remotely-operated vessel loses contact with the shore? Mr Daffey said that this issue had been paramount at Rolls-Royce from the start, and that the company's vessels were designed to enter a special safe mode if they lost contact.

Both Mr Daffey and Mr Koponen added that, in an effort to maintain contact at all times, their companies were using several communication methods in conjunction, including satellite communications, 4G mobile phone signals and radar. Communications with their vessels are encrypted to protect against cyber-attacks, they noted.

Standard-setting for construction was another point of discussion. Mr Daffey and Mr Koponen had advocated the development of goal-based standards for the build and operation of autonomous and remotely-operated vessels, but a delegate asked whether prescriptive standards would not be better for safety. In response, Mr Daffey spoke strongly in favour of goal-based standards, saying that technical innovations were progressing so quickly that prescriptive standards would not be able to keep up.

In other words, he explained, manufacturers should be given a safety outcome that the regulators wanted them to achieve, and they should be free to use their latest technology to do this. If the standards prescribed the use of a particular device or method, he pointed out, this could quickly become obsolete.

One further issue raised was the role of autonomous and remotely-operated vessels in lifesaving and search-and-rescue. Mr Daffey speculated that such vessels could perhaps be deployed to the scene of an accident and be directed remotely to lower liferafts, but acknowledged that there was a great deal of technical and regulatory work needed on this. In addition, the panel members agreed that the international obligation for all vessels to go to the aid of others in distress would need to be revisited.

Top image: IMO secretary general Kitack Lim opened the MSC 100 event in front of a packed house of delegates from all over the world.Panel members to his left included Kevin Daffey of Rolls-Royce, Branko Berlan of the ITF and Timo Koponen of Wärtsilä.  Image: IMO

  • below is a YouTube video about Rolls-Royce’s Svan system – including the voyage on 3 December 2018 – (search on for Svan demonstration Rolls-Royce)