‘No insignificant task’: A framework for autonomy

Cdre James Fanshawe CBE:  It’s not a case of everyone else moving over to make room for this new technology: my philosophy is that autonomous and unmanned ships have got to find their way into a very structured order.
Cdre James Fanshawe CBE: It’s not a case of everyone else moving over to make room for this new technology: my philosophy is that autonomous and unmanned ships have got to find their way into a very structured order.
Rolls-Royce and Svitzer demonstrated the world's first remotely operated tug this year.  Image: Rolls-Royce
Rolls-Royce and Svitzer demonstrated the world's first remotely operated tug this year. Image: Rolls-Royce
Fanshawe: there are likely to be humans in the loop, even if they’re based on land. Image: Rolls-Royce
Fanshawe: there are likely to be humans in the loop, even if they’re based on land. Image: Rolls-Royce

In June the IMO agreed to a scoping exercise for autonomous vessel regulations that many thought was still some years off. James Fanshawe, chair of the Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG) was one of the key influencers.

Even having left the navy in 2005 with an impressive list of commands behind him, one might assume a retired commodore isn’t the most intuitive choice to advance the cutting edge of autonomous shipping regulation. But two elements of James Fanshawe’s career stand out. The navy, in the vanguard of information technology, had put him in front of its first computers in the ‘70s, giving him “a vantage-point from which to see the technology grow up”.

Second, he founded a company behind an unmanned surface vessel – AutoNaut – and started to make enquiries about the proposed rules. The fate of those who consistently pose difficult questions is often to be put in charge, and in 2014 Fanshawe was asked to form MASRWG, which released a code of conduct in 2016 and, in November this year, a code of practice for maritime autonomous surface ships up to 24m in length. 

It also drafted the UK submission submitted by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency to IMO in June this year for a scoping exercise to address the challenges. This, Fanshawe says, should help gain international consensus for the necessary regulatory underpinning. 

He talks to Stevie Knight about what lies ahead.

Why can’t we simply wait for regulations until we have more idea about the emerging technologies?

A couple of years ago we had a sense that in 20 or 30 years we might see this trend toward autonomy start to take off. But the reality is it’s happening now. The work I’m involved in is about being ready for that day and not left playing catch-up in the future.

However, this isn’t entirely about autonomous ships. It’s about the interaction between manned and unmanned vessels. It’s not a case of everyone else moving over to make room for this new technology. My philosophy is that autonomous and unmanned ships have got to find their way into a very structured order.

The onus is firmly on those operating these new ships to make sure that they do so sensibly and safely. Existing maritime rules must be recognised: these vessels will have to find their place inside this framework.

In my view Colregs, Marol, STCW and SOLAS have been written to be remarkably robust and encompass all sorts of change. Still, the regulations talk about sight and hearing. We are now going to have to rely on optics and other sensors to take on that function and not assume that the human eye and ear is better than the technological solution. In fact, optical and remote devices are already being used in all sorts of ways – doctors have been able to carry out remote operations for some time; what they’re doing is phenomenal.”

There’s a lot of scepticism about the reliability of artificial ‘brains’....

I understand that developing trust and understanding means facing up to a very hefty cultural issue in the maritime industry. It’s not helped that we’ve all been badly burned by the early stages of IT: the mobiles apps didn’t work; upgrades refused to install; or that new software that needed a patch before we could use it.

A lot of onboard systems run automatically already. The systems that underpin the command, control and navigation, are really getting there: the first unmanned air taxi has just flown in Dubai. This evolution is taking place across many different industries, so if we want the maritime sector keep pace, we can no longer afford to be dismissive of the technology. 

It’s worth noting that some of the traditional research pathways have changed. The research undertaken by the defence sector has, in the past, been fed through to the commercial side. But in this case, the direction has switched and the defence world is now feeding from commercial pipes. There are a lot of very bright people working in this area.

Some believe that autonomous vessels will lead to unacceptable levels of unemployment. What’s your view?

Autonomy doesn’t mean that there will be fewer people in the maritime sector. Firstly, unmanned vessels are never going to completely replace manned vessels. For example, you can’t easily automate a fishing vessel. Secondly, some segments – such as cruise ships – will always have large numbers of personnel onboard although they might be involved in tasks other than directing the ship.

There will always be a place for the human. One of the things I’d stress is that there will still be a need for people with seagoing experience who aren’t necessarily onboard, but who have a supervisory role from a control station. There are likely to be humans in the loop, even if they’re based on land. For the foreseeable future, these will be people who understand what it is to drive ships around the sea.

It’s true we do have trouble finding skilled crew, but autonomy might even draw more people into the industry by taking out some of the sheer drudgery.

Do autonomous ship projects have business credibility?  

There are sound commercial reasons for the development. If it’s possible to reduce hotel services, you increase the payload of the ship and lower other costs. Plus iif you don’t have a crew on board you could have longer rotations and you may be able to cross into difficult areas, like the polar regions.

The first autonomous cargo vessel – the Yara Birkeland – is a useful example of a commercial application because a lot of the impetus came from the owner. Yara was looking for a solution to move their products. Their driver wasn’t the technology in itself, that was just the answer. I’d say there are now a growing number of companies also looking for a similar solution. If you’d asked me that question three years ago I wouldn’t have been so sure. But now people are beginning to prepare their business case around the potential benefits.

There’s also a lot of work going into all sorts of other, smaller vessels such as tugs and small ferries. That’s happening right now and the first autonomous short-run ferries will also be in the water soon.

Are other segments also looking at this kind of technology?

In the oil and gas sector the case for autonomy is clear. No-one wants another ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, so the oil majors now have huge regulatory requirements and ideally want to be monitoring their rigs, pipelines and other assets continuously.

Obviously paying people to do that is very expensive and very tricky. But recent developments mean a lot of these tasks could be carried out using very sophisticated sensors on dedicated, smaller craft like USVs and AUVs: you can pump the information ashore to the scientists without the cost of directly putting personnel onboard a ship, with all that entails. So now all the larger oil and gas companies are becoming interested.

There’s another angle to this: the whole world of marine scientific research. After all, as we have all read, 70% of the world’s surface is covered by water but we know less than 10% about what’s really going on down there.

Autonomy will mean we can map the sea bed more effectively, but in the broadest sense it will allow us to understand our oceans in a way we haven’t been able to do so far. Persistence is the word: it means you can get out to places inhospitable for humans, and stick around for a long enough time to make the results we record usable. It might involve a combination of surface vessels looking under the water, or surface and subsurface craft along with ROVs. But autonomy will be at the heart of it.

You talk about a combined approach in future?

It’s already happening. Remotely controlled craft have already been used to increase the range of commercial vessels. Take FedNav – back in 2014 it started to fly drones off the bow of its icebreaking ships to look at the conditions ahead and estimate the thickness of the ice.

The reality is that this technology is taking us into a whole new world. What’s certain is that we don’t yet know what will happen – I’m fairly sure that if in 10 years’ time we look back on the discussions we are having now, a lot of them will appear off the mark. But still, we have to prepare for some of the likely outcomes.

When you look at the different sectors – maritime, road, rail and air – you can see that development is moving at different speeds and there are different stages, but the fact is autonomy is becoming a feature of all of them. Even if we, in the maritime world, decided to put the brakes on all this, others wouldn’t, and we’d just be left behind.

One of the things we have got to start thinking about is what all this means for our existing infrastructure, and what will we need to develop in 2020 or 2030? The task we will be facing is not insignificant: we have to do our best to meet it.

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