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People, skills, and planning essential for successful adoption of autonomous vessels, says IMarEST

Near and long term planning with a focus on people and skills should be at the centre for successful adoption of maritime autonomous vessels, advises experts from the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST).

The advice is part of the Institute’s Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships Special Interest Group’s response to the UK Department for Transport’s consultation on ‘the future of transport regulatory review for maritime autonomy and remote operations’.

Gordon Meadow CMarTech FIMarEST, chair of Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Special Interest Group, explained: “The future of maritime autonomous surface ships is all about people and the needs of the maritime workforce as the industry moves forward. New technologies bring both opportunities and challenges and we need to separate hype from the real drivers of a technology's commercial promise and prepare for what these opportunities and challenges may be. Automation and technology adoption should be used as a tool in achieving our goals, not as the goal itself.”

In its submission, the MASS SIG recommends adopting consistent definitions relating to MASS across organisations and regulators to avoid confusion within the industry, repetition of work, and to ensure clarity when dealing with any terminology with legal and regulatory use. Gordon explains: “Definitions for autonomous and remote vessels needs to be clarified. An uncrewed or unmanned vessel is by definition a vessel. The same roles will be needed as on a crewed vessel, it is just that they are managed differently.  Uncrewed vessel operators must have an understanding of the wider maritime world.”

The group also advises that software performance is thoroughly tested alongside process. Gordon adds: “To only approve a process would be a weak link in the chain. Complex software interactions and reversion testing should also be part of the release process. Software management is essential in a similar way to management of physical vessel characteristics.”

In addition, the group advises that the operational envelope must be defined; a remote control centre encompasses a broad range of capabilities as well as a range of potential remote locations. There will also be a range of specific functions and responsibilities in the remote control centre. These activities will need to be defined in terms of what will make up remote operations/what is expected of operators considering each individual role and from this task statements can be understood.  

“Depending on the vessel type and/or level of autonomy, we know from experience so far that this requires more complex operations, requiring different technical skillsets and a different number of personnel. We believe the industry needs to perform a gap analysis to benchmark between the existing workforce skills and the new skill set requirements.  This will allow us to map and categorise the consequence of new skills brought in by the impact of technology,” continued Meadow.

Finally, the group believes that MASS provides an opportunity for creating greater equality, diversity and inclusion in roles that may have otherwise been closed to some people. Gordon adds: “This is starting to emerge with the creation of working groups such as MASS People. A group set up to help to safeguard progression in the technology-people partnership identifying the workforce's changing needs and providing recommendations on new competency standards, as well as proposing specialisms, training structures and qualification requirements for operators now and in the future..”

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