Mike Elsom

Crewless but not clueless

Some are talking “autonomous” and others are talking “unmanned” – and there’s a difference. / By Mike Elsom

There’s a lot of talk about autonomous ships. The media is full of it, conferences are discussing it and most industry sectors are working out how to manage it.

Some are talking “autonomous” and others are talking “unmanned” – and there’s a difference. Most agree that an “unmanned” ship is likely to be controlled by a real person sat behind a bank of screens in a remote office. “Autonomous” vessels are more likely to have been dispatched on a computer defined route with minimal human intervention until they reach port. The difference is important, not least because it might determine if the vessel is in compliance with international maritime regulations. Ships must be “sufficiently and efficiently manned”; every vessel must maintain a “proper lookout”; each ship must be “in the charge of a master”. At a stretch an “unmanned” ship might meet these regulations but it seems doubtful that an “autonomous” vessel would. But that’s largely academic as regulations will - or should – be amended to suit the incoming technology.

Many sectors are already discussing how they can cope with non-crewed vessels. Insurance people, for instance, are scratching their heads about how to identify the risks involved, and then how they might be quantified and mitigated. The whole issue of cyber-security is causing a massive headache, particularly as shipping has already been hit by several high-profile attacks.

Autonomous shipping has the potential to open a new playground for these misguided techno-trolls to unleash their own brand of chaos. And the ramifications of this are mind-blowing.

And what about reputational risk and the media? If the vessels are unmanned, does this mean the owner, manager and charterer are invisible? Who is culpable for a failure and who’s to blame?

On the one hand, a vessel without a crew is immune to the lookout tweeting an explosive picture and sparking a media frenzy. On the other, a spill is still a spill, pollution is still pollution and a grounding is still a grounding irrespective of who, if anyone, is on board. Media will still need to be managed and reputations protected.

But have we added a further complexity to the mix? Media will want to know the usual circumstances of an incident but they are sure to ask who was controlling the ship, was it a technology or a human failure, was it caused by a cyber attack, why wasn’t it protected, who provided the technology and answers to endless other intrusive questions. Not only will the usual suspects be rounded up (owner, manager, class, flag etc) but the technology and software provider will likely find themselves in the sights of the media too.

Non-crewed vessels are already on the scene and we’ve seen reports of such vessels being trialled on short, contained and straightforward routes in certain parts of the world. And pundits are predicting 2025 as a realistic time-frame for these vessels to become a commercial reality. We can’t ignore the inevitable and we need to ready ourselves for a significant change in how shipping operates. Rather than an unmanned vessel allowing the owner to remain unconnected and invisible, the reality is that these futuristic ships are likely to intensify and widen the media spotlight. Just because the vessels might be crewless, it doesn’t mean we should be clueless with our media response.

Email: melsom@navigatepr.com

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