‘Human will remain in the loop as autonomous shipping advances’

Where autonomous shipping is concerned, technology is not the issue, according to Capt. Eero Lehtovaara, Head of Regulatory Affairs at ABB Marine & Ports. ‘Most of the technology needed is already there, but we need to figure out the social license to operate, that is, the regulatory side.’

When looking at ships today, a lot is already being done by machines, according to Lehtovaara. ‘Think about ECDIS, Radar, GPS, AIS and Gyro for example. A key element for autonomous shipping is to see: would we allow the machines to take up more space than we have already given them? We already have unattended machinery spaces. I don’t see why this couldn’t be the case on the bridge, with certain conditions of course.’

Lehtovaara points out a number of key questions need to be answered before autonomous shipping can become reality. ‘How are analyses made, who does the analysis and even more important, who gets to make the decision?’ This is tied in with rules and regulations and there is also the liability aspect. What it comes down to, says Lehtovaara, is that autonomous ships ‘need to be as safe as autonomous ships.’

Human in the loop

He therefore expects developments to be a gradual process as there are still so many questions that need to be answered. ‘It is not possible to come from the Stone Age and then directly go to the moon. There are a number of things we need to do in between.’ Not least of this is for regulatory bodies to ascertain that it is safe.

That is also why he expects that in most cases, for a very long time going forward, the human will remain in the loop. Humans and machines will then ‘share the burden of operation’. When asked, he expects this could also be a human from a control centre on shore. ‘Where you control the ship from, is not really relevant. Doing it remotely of course raises other questions such as of connectivity.’

Working office hours

For Lehtovaara, autonomous shipping is a way of increasing safety and efficiency, not so much about reducing crew size. ‘I don’t really see the key drivers to take people off the ships. The technology will come on board. So what we are looking at is a change in how we work on ships. We might go into a situation where for a ship operating on the open sea with nothing in the vicinity, the whole crew can work office hours, changing the work pattern on board, and changing how people perceive working on board,’ adds Lehtovaara.

Looking ahead he says the technology will have to be tested. ‘We will have to see how it matures.’ On top of that, he stresses that there needs to be a market for it. ‘Customers will have to want it for it to become a reality.’

Horizontal elevators

Lehtovaara expects to see that the same autonomous technology will be used differently depending on the ship type. ‘For example, a gas carrier or passenger ship can use a safety tool to maximise situational awareness and preventing potential collisions. The same tool on a road ferry can be used to make it fully autonomous.’

Best chances of operating a fully autonomous ship in the short term are road ferries, according to Lehtovaara. ‘I expect ships operating a short passage in safe waters to be the first ones to operate unmanned. I compare these road ferries to horizontal elevators. I mean, elevators don’t have to be operated either.’

Lehtovaara spoke during the webinar “Year of the Autonomous Ship” organised by JLA Media on 30 June.

Pictures by ABB.

Author: Mariska Buitendijk

Mariska Buitendijk is one of SWZ|Maritime's journalists as well as the magazine's copy editor.