As IMO Weighs Autonomous Ship Rules, Seafarers Warn of Safety Threats

As the Maritime Safety Committee is meeting for its 99th session in London to discuss the future of autonomous ships, some are highlighting the overwhelming concern expressed by commercial mariners about the dangers this evolving technology could pose from ports to open waters.

The MSC is a body of the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations headquartered in London; its meeting began Wednesday and runs through May 25. On the agenda were amendments to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code for carriage of lithium batteries and vehicles powered by flammable liquid or gas and to the International Code for the Application of Fire Test Procedures concerning fire protection materials and required approval test methods for passenger ships and high-speed craft.

The maritime body is also reviewing the annual stats on piracy and armed robbery against ships, with 203 incidents worldwide in 2017 — the lowest in two decades. In the first four months of this year, though, incidents have spiked in the Gulf of Guinea, with 36 compared to 17 at the same point last year.

The key agenda item is moving forward on a regulatory scoping exercise regarding the safety and security of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, including developing a working group to deliver recommendations. The IMO said the discussion was “expected to touch on an extensive range of issues, including the human element, safety, security, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents and protection of the marine environment, for different levels of autonomy.”

“It is important that we remain flexible to accommodate new technologies, and so improve the efficiency of shipping – while at the same time keeping in mind the role of the human element and the need to maintain safe navigation, further reducing the number of marine casualties and incidents,” said IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim.

At the opening of the MSC meeting, Lim announced a new inter-divisional maritime autonomous surface ships task force within his office.

Before the meeting commenced, though, Nautilus International urged delegates to consider a survey showing that 85 percent of seafarers see unmanned autonomous ships as a safety threat.

The poll released in February surveyed nearly 1,000 maritime professionals, more than a quarter of those captains or masters, from 20 unions; 83 percent of these respondents doubted that commercially viable autonomous ships would be on the water two years from now. Survey participants represented more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., UK, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Denmark and Sweden.

Respondents rated cybersecurity as the biggest obstacle to the adoption of autonomous ships.

Asked where they thought unmanned ships would cause the greatest safety threat, 19 percent said offshore services, 12 percent said international waters, 38 percent said coastal waters, and 39 percent picked harbors and pilotage areas. Overall, 59 percent said they believed autonomous ships would be a threat anywhere at sea.

“There was a strong recurring theme in the feedback about the unpredictable and complex chains of failure which can occur onboard ships, and how simple failures such as leaking pipes or pumps can rapidly escalate into major incidents,” the report added. “Many respondents stressed the poor quality of equipment and components on their vessels, and the way in which this requires high levels of supervision and intervention.”

“Others questioned how autonomous vessels would operate safely alongside the very varied types of maritime traffic, often in busy and congested waterways, or in reduced visibility and at night… Concerns were also raised about the dangers posed by semi-submerged objects, and survey participants also questioned how autonomous ships would comply with SOLAS and COLREG requirements – especially in terms of search and rescue responsibilities, the requirement to keep a lookout, the definition of safe manning, and the requirement to prevent pollution after an incident.”

Concerns were also raised about job security, as 84 percent saw automation as a threat to seafaring careers. More than 60 percent were open to hybrid automation and its potential to make the shipping industry safer in tandem with human capital.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation and the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations submitted papers to the Maritime Safety Committee meeting stressing the need for an agreed definition on autonomous ships and recognition of human-machine interface issues, as well as issues that could arise from autonomous and conventional ships operating in the same area.

The unions also called for a greater focus on cybersecurity, and “a degree of caution to ensure that an inappropriate regulatory framework is not hastily put in place in a leap of faith by the IMO on the assurances of technology suppliers.”

“Properly introduced, automation and digital technologies could transform shipping in a positive way – making it safer and more efficient – but managed poorly, they could undermine safety and erode the essential base of maritime skills, knowledge and expertise,” warned Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson. “…There is no knee-jerk opposition to technology, but rather a genuine desire to see it used in a way that improves the safety and efficiency of the shipping industry and the working lives of all within it.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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