A comprehensive listing of companies concerned with shipping, bunkers/supplies, freight forwarding, maritime and supporting industries.

News

Autonomous shipping: Science fiction or potential horror story?

The Business Times by BY DAVID HUGHES

RECENTLY, an item in Dennis Bryant's Maritime Blog caught my eye. His is an excellent source of shipping news and primarily highlights statements from maritime authorities, mainly but not exclusively those based in the US.

Mr Bryant drew attention to a significant danger to navigation.

The US Maritime Administration (Marad) reported: "Multiple instances of significant GPS interference continue to be reported by vessels and aircraft operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. These reports have been concentrated near Port Said, Egypt, the Suez Canal, and in the vicinity of Cyprus.

"Additional instances of similar interference were reported in October 2018 near Jeddah Port in Saudi Arabia. This interference is resulting in lost or otherwise altered GPS signals affecting bridge navigation, GPS-based timing and communications equipment."

It so happened I saw this worrying report just after reading a new study conducted by the Hamburg School of Business Administration on behalf of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) on the potential effects of autonomous ships on the role of seafarers and the global shipping industry.

According to ICS secretary-general Guy Platten, the study seeks to separate "fact from fiction" in light of growing media interest and the diversity of expert opinions on the subject.

The study commissioned by ICS includes an in-depth assessment of risk and opportunities of digitalisation in global logistics chains, as well as on digitalisation and automation in ship operations.

ICS says the findings of the study suggest that the role of personnel on board and ashore will need to be redefined both operationally and legally.

Reviewing and understanding how these roles may evolve is also identified in the study as an important aspect to assess and address the impact of autonomous ships on the role of seafarers.

Reading the full report, I got the distinct impression it had not been written by seafarers and it more or less accepted the case for autonomous ships, though it did refer to the strong opposition to widespread use of autonomous ships by seafarers union Nautilus International.

Mr Platten says: "The two-year International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulatory scoping exercise for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (Mass) is now well underway to determine how existing IMO instruments can be leveraged to ensure that autonomous ships are safe, secure, and environmentally sound."

He adds: "This a complex task, expected to impact several areas under IMO's purview, and while it is recognised that clear opportunities might arise for the shipping industry which may not exist today, much more work must be done, particularly on the regulatory side and to address concerns about the impact of Mass on seafarers employed worldwide."

The assumption is that autonomous ships are on their way and the only question is how we adapt international maritime law and working practices to accommodate them.

The juggernaut is rolling and cannot be stopped. Or can it?

Actually we really do need to think very hard about where we are going on this. At the risk of being labelled a Luddite, I would draw attention to what can happen when electronics go wrong.

To return to that Marad warning on GPS , there will always be a need for somebody on the bridge who has the basic navigational skills to realise when the sophisticated electronic equipment we now rely on has got it wrong and to put it right the old-fashioned way.

There will always be a need for somebody on the bridge who has the basic navigational skills to realise when the sophisticated electronic equipment we now rely on has got it wrong and to put it right the old-fashioned way.