Regulation development for autonomous and remote-controlled shipping

US Coast Guard chose DNV as one partner for their one-year merchant marine training programme on autonomous and remote-controlled shipping. Lieutenant Steve Conde, who worked closely with DNV’s ship autonomy team, discusses current developments and gives insights into the collaboration.

With a dedicated 18-year tenure in the Coast Guard, Steve Conde has built a solid foundation in regulatory compliance, ensuring safety and environmental protection within the maritime industry. His expertise spans a wide range of responsibilities, including flag state inspections, port state control examinations, marine casualty investigations, port facility inspections, and comprehensive environmental protection measures.

When planning for this programme, what were the overarching goals for you individually and for the US Coast Guard as an organization?

The overarching goal was to assist the Coast Guard in developing a regulatory framework. And to do this, we’re partnering with our industry stakeholders, so that also gives us an opportunity to strengthen our relationships and meet our goal of mission excellence in what we do.

What made you choose DNV as one of your partners and destinations? What type of work are you engaged in?

DNV is one of the biggest classification societies in the world and Norway is kind of leading the way with facilitating testing of these technologies. And with DNV being native to Norway, it just made sense to collaborate on this. The work that I’m engaged in here is working with the Group Research and Development autonomy team and essentially, we’re trying to identify performance criteria for object detection and collision avoidance systems, trying to identify risks and trying to produce objective performance criteria.

Coming from a naval and commercial background, what have you learned from working with DNV’s R&D department?

It’s been very helpful with my previous internships because once I got to see and witness autonomous remote-control operations with the US Navy. To work with technology developers and see the technology developed and everything behind the scenes that goes into it, to work with classification societies and see when they take that product and put it through their review process to ensure product assurance. It’s been very helpful and insightful to see that the process that these technologies go through is a very thorough product assurance process.

A lot of people have probably heard about autonomous shipping, unmanned shipping, AI, machine learning, data fusion and data integration without knowing exactly what these terms mean. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

Yes, so unmanned is just the way it sounds. There’s no crew on board. Autonomous, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no crew or there’s crew on board. It kind of depends. What that means is that the vessel has a function that is capable of doing things autonomously. Same thing with remote control. It could be with a crew or without a crew; it just kind of depends, but it’s referring to the specific function that it is capable of doing. Working with the technology development companies, I also got an insight into how they’re creating these collision avoidance systems. And so it revolves around machine learning. Machine learning is a subset of AI. All machine learning is AI, but not all AI is machine learning; it’s a lot broader than that. When you look at integration and fusion, those are different as well. So integration. You look at a ship, you look at their electronic chart display and information (ECDIS) system, they have an AIS, radar, GPS, everything tied into that, but they’re independent and just providing you with that sensor’s information. Whereas sensor fusion is a collision avoidance system where it uses a lot of the same sensors, by processing that data differently it is basically deciding based on that data. For example, the radar may detect “I see an object here” and the AIS tells you “I detect an object there as well”. And so, it increases the probability that what I’m seeing is an object that has been detected there. So those are some of the differences.

These are all important distinctions, but I’d like to dwell specifically on the difference between autonomous ships and unmanned ships. How do you think that may influence people’s attitudes towards autonomous ships and ships with AI systems on board?

Autonomous is not synonymous with unmanned. I think that’s a big misconception. Also, one of the misconceptions is that if we get to unmanned, we’re not going to need mariners anymore. I don’t believe that’s true. It doesn’t matter if a vessel has autonomous and remote-control function or is full board unmanned. It must be under the supervision of a mariner. You’re just not going to let a vessel just roam on the high seas without any sort of supervision. You must tell the system where to go if you have to change direction. Or if the delivery location changes, it’s not going to know that so you have to tell the system. So, we’re still going to need mariners to facilitate these types of operations. It’s also an opportunity to provide some work–life balance to these mariners because they’ll be out at sea for several months up to a year. With these technologies there’s a possibility that they don’t have to be away from their family so long. They could possibly come home every day. But we’re not there yet for the whole unmanned concept. And so right now I believe that we just need to take a step-based approach to hopefully get there one day.

Do you get the impression that there is a lot of labour security-based fear around autonomy?

Yes. And like I said, I think if people understand what autonomous and remote-control operations are and aren’t, they will have a better understanding of how it can be used to improve what they do, give them more time at home, more flexibility and encourage the new generation to enter the maritime industry. Because right now there’s a labour workforce shortage worldwide. So, this could possibly be a very enticing career for the next generation.
Source: DNV

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