Automation and digitization in focus at the Transport Agency's shipping seminar

The fact that shipping is becoming increasingly digitized and autonomous is hardly anyone who questions. However, there are still many issues that need to be resolved before autonomous shipping becomes an everyday business. During two days, the Swedish Transport Agency invited the shipping community to a seminar on mainly autonomy and digitalization.

"In 15 years, I do not think we're raising eyebrows for automated global bulk vessels, but I'm guessing," said Henrik Ringbom, Professor of Maritime Law and one of the speakers at the seminar.

Conventions and regulations are seen as a high threshold for automated shipping to exceed. But Henrik Ringbom believes that the vast majority of the regulations do not have to be so difficult to adapt. In terms of the crew, there are quite few regulations that require people aboard the ships, he states. In fact, there are functions to be met and if you can fulfill the functions without people on board, the changing of the rules won't be that difficult.

"If you can agree that a captain of a ship can be at shore, it's a rather small step, but it's a great step if you don't want any person involved, neither on board or at shore, if it's a completely autonomous ship," says Henrik Ringbom.

How easy, or difficult, it will be to adapt the regulations and the conventions for automated shipping depends largely on the flag states. Benevolent flag states are a prerequisite and if the International Maritime Organization, IMO, can agree on unmanned vessels,  the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, won't be any obstacle to autonomous shipping.

But Henrik Ringbom, like many other speakers, sees a future where man is still largely involved in shipping, but that the roles of professions change and new roles arise.

"I do not think anyone sees a future where the ships are totally autonomous and where people are not involved at all. The degree of automation is central to the law, as long as you only talk about a remote-controlled vessel, you have the same people you have in place today, it's just that they are located elsewhere", says Henrik Ringbom.

The human role
Researchers in both Sweden and Norway are looking at the humans in autonomous shipping. At the Maritime University of Kalmar, work has just started, which will provide a clearer picture of what's needed from the The Master Mariner and Chief Engineer's of the future. The Norwegian research project HUMANE (Human Maritime Autonomy Enable) also focuses on the role of the human and the skills needed in the future.

The HUMANE project was presented by Margareta Lützhoft, Professor of Maritime Human Factors at the University of Western Norway. She also think that the shipping in the future will require people and she challenged the ambition to prevent human error as a driving force for autonomous shipping.

"There is no information about the times the human factor solves problems," said Margareta Lützhoft.

"Not least within programming, there will be people. I'm not sure at all that we will get less human error, we'll get other human errors," she continued.

To show the need for man, Margareta Lützhoft also made a comparison with the American drones flying in Afghanistan. When a the Predator drone is in the air, 168 people is required on the ground.

Lack of bandwidth
Thomas Porathe, professor of interaction design at NTNU in Norway, also used the American drones as examples to show problems with automated shipping. The bandwidth is insufficient and today, drone pilots have a delay of two seconds, which means, among other things, that they cannot start and land the drones. They need help of personnel at the ground in Afghanistan.

To remote control a ship, 145 different information pieces of information need to be transferred to a shore-based control center (SCC), Thomas Porathe said. And for a SCC to be economically viable, they must handle at least about 100 ships. Then the bandwidth becomes a bottleneck.

For example, the bandwidth of Inmarsat, is at present only sufficient to remotely control up to seven ships in the strait of Malacca.

Swedish platform
Much happens around the world when it comes to autonomous shipping. In Norway, where both Margareta Lützhoft and Thomas Porathe are active, they have focused on the autonomous and digital development of shipping. The Norwegian ship Yara Birkeland, is scheduled to have more or less autonomous operations in 2021. In Finland, Rolls-Royce has opened a research center for autonomous shipping and around the world. Different actors is planning or conducting different tests.

In Sweden, a pre-study on autonomous shipping, initiated by Lighthouse, has led to a number of new projects and partnerships, and at the moment, efforts are being made to create an open collaboration platform for autonomy and digitization. The platform will focus on innovative concepts in automation, remote control, autonomous shipping processes, as well as securing industry skills in these areas. Around 20 companies are involved in the preparation of the platform with RISE Viktoria as project manager.