WAYPOINT Anticipating autonomy at sea

01 Jun 2020 The Navigator

Dr Andy Norris, an active Fellow of The Nautical Institute and the Royal Institute of Navigation, looks at how autonomous technology might develop in the future – and how it is already changing things today.

The development legislation to regulate Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) has been on IMO’s main agenda since 2018. Interim guidelines for the trials of autonomous vessels have already been agreed. However, work is expected to continue for some years before detailed standards can become readily available.

Among other things, the legislation sets out levels of autonomy that define how far a vessel is controlled by a human, and how far by a remote user or even by artificial intelligence.

Importantly for today’s navigators, the first three degrees of autonomy all continue to need fully-qualified navigational staff to ensure the vessel’s safety, whether they are based on board or in a remote location – but who will also need some additional skills to keep pace.

The four degrees of autonomy currently being considered by IMO are:

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

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

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

4. Fully autonomous ship. The ship’s operating system is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

Regulating equipment
The first degree of autonomy is mostly aimed at ensuring that the increasingly intelligent equipment being fitted to new and existing vessels is suitably regulated. These systems can make an automated analysis of aspects of the total situation, taking into account information from multiple sources, such as radar, AIS and charted data. They can even have some understanding of the Collision Regulations. In the near future, sophisticated optical sensing equipment will also be introduced to aid the human view from the bridge. These types of system will allow vessels to be navigated autonomously in certain situations – but always with an overview by qualified human navigators.

Control from land
The second and third degrees of autonomy are for vessels designed to be navigated and controlled from the land by fully.qualified personnel, assisted by appropriate levels of automation. It is obviously highly important for the control centre to have a full and complete optical view from the vessel at all times, as well as continued access to all conventional navigation related sensors.

The main difference between the second and third degrees of automation is the way in which action can be taken when the remote operator is unable to maintain appropriate control of the vessel. On second-degree systems, the qualified onboard human navigator would immediately move to the vessel’s emergency manual control position.

For the third degree level, a special onboard system would automatically take over. The vessel’s control centre would initiate appropriate emergency measures, inform the relevant authorities and help decide upon the best solution to rescue the situation. Huge technological sophistication would be needed to ensure that the vessel remained entirely safe while awaiting either the renewal of normal remote operator control or rescue by a physical recovery operation.


Ensuring safety
Fully autonomous ships will need to be able to navigate at least as safely as well crewed conventional vessels, even when encountering emergency situations. This will undoubtedly become achievable in time; however, we are apparently many years away from being able to demonstrably meet the emerging IMO requirements for such an innovation.

Qualified maritime navigators still have a long and interesting career in front of them – either at sea or with ever-increasing opportunities to become land-based.

Contact RIN at: www.rin.org.uk | 1 Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2AT | Tel: +44 (0)20 7591 3134