Unique challenges from ship automation, says naval architect

In the latest in a series of articles from Shipowners’ P&I Club, Keir Gravil, a naval architect at Frazer-Nash Consultancy in Bristol, UK said that automation presented a set of unique challenges to designers, insurers and operators of ships.

In the article he discussed some of the key issues that could face automated ships of the future from a design perspective.

Gravil noted that, as transport evolution of transportation progressed, at each step the human element of control was reduced or eliminated altogether. But what of shipping, he asked?

Gravil said that it was often the job of ship designers, especially those in the naval defence industry, to think ahead and anticipate future technological changes. He said that one could argue that a particular quirk of defence, with its long lead times for new platforms, was that ideas more at home in science fiction were actively considered for future ships.

Meanwhile, commercial drivers were usually shorter term: a commercial ship owner could not afford to wait decades for delivery of a new vessel.

This meant that the naval industry appeared to have taken a lead when it comes to automation aboard ships. HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier’s weapons handling system can be operated by a team of 50, or as low as 12, said to be a reduction of more than 65% compared with more traditional systems.

Commercial ship operators faced similar cost and staffing problems, with a predicted shortfall of around 150,000 officers in the maritime industry by 2025, Gravil wrote. Increased automation was therefore an obvious and attractive solution to the challenges faced by ship owners, operators and the wider industry.

Ship design was not straightforward. Adding automation to the mix presented its own set of design challenges and opportunities, and would require significant cooperation between ship owners, ship builders, classification societies, underwriters and P&I Clubs, said Gravil. Automation would be a gradual change and the challenge this posed for ship design was “both exciting and formidable”.

Gravil noted that the obvious benefit to increasing automation was the reduction in operational crew numbers, or even the abolition of crew altogether. Ignoring the obvious regulatory hurdles, this reduced the need for accommodation and crew welfare systems. However, crews were more than merely ship operators. They kept ships running smoothly and without incident; they reacted to unforeseen circumstances and solved complex problems with navigation and machinery performance. This would be no mean feat to achieve with automation.

Reduced crewing offered the possibility that superstructures designed to accommodate crew and provide sufficient navigational field of view could be removed, or changed to reduce wind resistance. Internal layouts could be optimized, with more compact systems. All these changes could provide benefits in terms of a reduction in operating costs, especially that of fuel.

Gravil said that standards underpinning the integrity of a damaged ship might be revisited. With no crew available to respond to fire or flood, the criteria which the ship should meet could become more onerous, with increases in the number of flooded compartments a ship would be expected to survive, and greater resistance to fires in machinery spaces.