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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

AI and automation could result in more ship accidents

Tue 13 Nov 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

AI and automation could result in more ship accidents
Car carrier City of Rotterdam was damaged as it struck a ferry in 2015 because of the disorientation of a semi-circular bridge

Further integration of automation and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) on ships could increase the risk of maritime accidents as seafarers are forced to become system monitors.

This could lead to watchkeepers becoming tired, complacent and forgetting to check navigation issues or question computer information. Seafarers could become over-reliant on technology and less alert to an incident occurring.

This was the warning from the UK Government’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) chief inspector Andrew Moll at a safety seminar this month at the UK Chamber of Shipping. He warned that greater levels of automation in ship navigation and decision-making could lead to shipping incidents.

“Humans do not make good monitors,” said Mr Moll. “We need to set alarms and alerts otherwise mariners will not do checks.”

Having to monitor semi-autonomous ships over long ocean voyages or coastal sailings could lead to boredom for seafarers. “Technology could make us lazy,” said Mr Moll, adding that there would be a “lack of meaning and purpose” to the job and that seafarers could suffer from mental fatigue, an inability to concentrate and then lack awareness of the situation.

“Seafarers would be tired and demotivated when they get to port,” said Mr Moll. Fatigue is one of the key factors that cause the maritime accidents the MAIB investigates, along with loss of situational awareness and equipment failure.

Mr Moll considered the shifting of decision-making “away from the onboard human to the onshore manager” as one of the threats to ship safety in the future.

Another threat is too much reliance on computers, such as ECDIS, for navigation. The MAIB is studying the impact of over-reliance on ECDIS and affects of increasing numbers of displays on ship bridges on seafarer operations.

“We have seen increasing integration of ship systems and increasing reliance on computers,” said Mr Moll as he listed challenges to ship safety in the future. On that list he also included increasing use of “novel fuels and novel propulsion systems” such as methanol, LNG and hybrid propulsion.

Threats to seafarer situational awareness from bridge systems was highlighted by UK Maritime Pilots’ Association secretary general Don Cockrill. He explained that more automation on ships, such as using advanced autopilots and preplanned routeing systems, means “seafarers can lose track of what is happening in the real world”.

Technology could lead to complacency while bridge design can result in ship accidents. Capt Cockrill provided as an example the collision between Fairmount Shipping’s car carrier City of Rotterdam and DFDS’s roro ferry Primula Seaways on the Humber estuary in eastern England on 3 December 2015. A key factor in this ship crash was the semi-circular bridge on City of Rotterdam, which meant the Humber pilot in control of the ship was unable to identify the exact heading of the vessel before its collision.

Capt Cockrill also explained that seafarer’s night vision can be affected by the bright screens of bridge electronics, as it takes the eye time to adjust between the bright screens and the darkness outside the bridge window. This can lead to visual fatigue during a long watch period. One solution Capt Cockrill suggested was to introduce a red-light environment on the bridge to reduce eye fatigue.

These warnings and presentations were made at the Annual Safety Seminar by the British Tugowners Association at the UK Chamber of Shipping on 8 November. During that seminar, Shipowners P&I loss prevention manager Carri Woodburn said there was an ongoing study into seafarer fatigue.

She said crew members had wearable technology during their daily routines to measure their health and tiredness levels. “This should help operators monitor crew rotors, manage fatigue and identify any issues,” said Ms Woodburn.

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