Research Summary – Technology

  • As part of the Pilotage Act Review

Hammurabi Consulting

January 2018

The drive to automate functions on the bridge of ships began almost a century ago but as with many technologies the landscape today is allowing for prodigious changes in short time frames.

The Global Positions System changed navigation dramatically by pushing celestial navigation and several terrestrial based position-fixing systems to near obsolescence. This shift although dramatic was only the precursor to much larger change with the development of the electronic chart.

With the introduction of the electronic chart it became possible to integrate and overlay information from different sensors and to use the system for passage planning, voyage execution and voyage recording. This integration was intended to ease the navigational workload and provide the officer of the watch with extensive information at a glance. The expected increases in safety and reductions in incidents have been frustrated by several factors related to the technology and operators.

The systems although fitted with well-intentioned alarms are premised on the operator always setting the appropriate alarms for every stage of a voyage. This often does not happen and due to safety protocols, it is not always possible to turn off alarms in areas where they do not provide useful information. Operators are not always prudent in optimizing the display and information presented to ensure that they have enough information but not too much in order to safely execute the passage.

The integration of the bridge is a component of a much larger international initiative aimed at harmonized collection, integration, exchange, presentation and analysis of marine information on board and ashore to facilitate safety and commerce objectives.

The integration of systems on board have been instrumental in allowing shipowners and technology companies to explore automated ships. Both safety and cost saving have been declared as the drivers for automating ships. Sources indicated that human factors are a contributing factor in most marine casualties. Cost savings include not only wages but the fitting of ships with bridges, accommodations, galleys and the power consumption related to hotel services.

Automated ships may be remote controlled from shore-based control centres. The remote control ships will require sufficient on board automation of systems to allow full execution of tasks without onboard human intervention. The systems will require redundancy and the communications links between the ships and their respective control centres will be critical pieces of infrastructure.

Ships will likely transfer from remote control to autonomous operation for open ocean passages with sensors and algorithms managing regular tasks. The ships will revert to remote control for high risk or complex tasks.

With experience and improved technology, the goal will be to have fully autonomous ships that can traverse berth to berth with little or no human intervention. This goal will take some time to achieve for international voyages as there are legal, policy and operational issues that will require resolution that may be as demanding as the technological challenges.

Not only are cargo carrying ships being eyed for conversion but harbour tugs which assist ships to and from the berths are also being designed for remote control operation. This could require pilots to interact with such tugs in a different manner and eventually may lead to them being “controlled” by the pilot.

When considering the pilotage of remote-controlled and autonomous vessels there are several models that may be considered:

  1. Pilot boards the ship with boarding team and gives orders to a remote centre for execution
  2. Pilot boards the ship with boarding team and takes local control of the ship
  3. Pilot monitors the ship from shore location and gives orders to a remote location
  4. Pilot monitors the ship from shore location and gives orders to a local boarding team
  5. Pilot takes control of the ship from a shore location and executes manoeuvres to the berth
  6. Remote control centre or autonomous ship enters harbour with pilot monitoring only from a shore station and providing advice if ship is operating outside expected parameters
  7. Autonomous ship confirms local information has been loaded and proceeds independently with no pilot oversight through pilotage area to destination.

Each of the models have varying implication for the conduct of pilotage operations. Difficulty of communication with remote centres may severely restrict the pilot’s ability to conduct a pilot/master exchange and to provide helm and engine orders to complete a passage. Contingency planning for loss of communications while in transit will become a necessary preoccupation for the pilot.

The time required to complete a pilotage assignment may increase if boarding teams need to familiarize themselves with the shipboard equipment that may be utilized while in pilotage waters.

Coastal pilotage and long-distance pilotage may be frustrated by ships not having conventional bridges and facilities for pilots to rest and eat. The necessity of and method of service delivery for these areas may lead to the development of new models for pilotage.

If pilots take control of vessels that are fully autonomous or from remote control centres the whole idea of acting as an advisor disappears. As they are no longer advisors the concept of being able to limit liability becomes an open question.

The definitions in the Pilotage Act never envisioned these advancements and consideration will have to be given to what it means to “belong to a ship”. When a ship is operated remotely by a rotation of people or even when one person is monitoring several ships at one time do they “belong to the ship”? The distinction between a pilot and a remote-controller may not be so clear.

If remote controlled and autonomous ships become the norm, finding personnel with the current experience required in the various pilotage regulations to become a pilot will be a significant challenge.

Pilots and authorities currently make significant and efficient use of simulation for training and for practicing new evolutions when operations are changing. Advancements in simulation technology allow for very realistic complex simulations that can be a cost effective method of accelerating the training and qualification of pilots.

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