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Risk in Context

Are Autonomous Ships the Answer to Reducing Human Error?

Posted by Stephen Harris 23 June 2017

New technology providing greater automation in shipping is already being employed to aid navigation and to monitor conditions on board and surrounding vessels. But recently, attention has turned to the possible development of remotely controlled vessels, and eventually fully autonomous ships, being rolled out within the next few decades.

Human error is often cited as the top cause of marine losses, widely thought to be a contributing factor in more than 70% of all accidents at sea. Autonomous technology in shipping has the potential to provide cost savings, greater monitoring of the vessel, and increased human safety, but could it also ease the issue of human error?

Would autonomous technology increase or decrease human error risk?

This new technology poses as many questions as it answers. Until it is thoroughly tested, it remains unclear whether a remotely operated vessel would lessen or heighten the possibility for human error.

In theory, it would appear that the greater automation of ships would decrease this risk. Yet in reality, this may not be the case.  It is likely that this “drone technology” would first be employed in ships that are remotely controlled by a Master and crew located onshore, and the development and utilisation of fully automated ships is unlikely to happen for some time.

With remotely operated vessels (likely to be a stepping-stone towards the final goal of fully automated ships), captains onshore would need to be thoroughly trained and competent in navigating the vessel from a remote location using new systems and technology; skills that are notably different to those of traditional mariners. Questions over the adequacy of quick risk-perception and to what extent that will be possible from remote locations will undoubtedly be high among the concerns to both regulators and insurers.

What would it take for this technology to be considered safe?

Insurers and regulators will likely have concerns regarding remotely operated vessels and their impact on human error risks.

We envisage that fully autonomous vessels would first operate on short local routes, on river systems and within the coastal waters of countries that permit their use.  The speed of expansion beyond such localised use will depend on the development and amendment of current international conventions, rules, and maritime contracts. 

Considerable work from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) will likely be required to create a safe, legal, and contractual framework for such vessels to operate on a commercial, international basis.

Achieving this may take considerably longer than the speed at which the technology is evolving, but it will happen, in time.

Related to:  Marine , Transportation

Stephen Harris