The coordinated ratification of a little-known convention by a large number of Asian nations has led to a sudden and unexpected passing into law of an IMO (International Maritime Organization) proposal to phase in mandatory use of Artificial Intelligence in place of seafarers onboard all commercial vessels. The convention will now enter into a phased enforcement and reach full mandatory status by 2024. This development occurred at a recent plenary session in London, and has taken the commercial industry aback, leaving vessel managers and crew union representatives scrambling to understand its ramifications.
“This convention has been kicking around for some time,” says Mr. Ahab, chairman of the International Federation of Shipmaster’s as he rushed from the raucous session, “but was viewed as a complete non-starter as it involved such a drastic change. It’s a ludicrous and ill-founded convention. Its acceptance has me utterly at a loss for words. Would you like me to say more?”
The convention calls for the phased in use of A.I.-enabled devices for navigation and collision-avoidance on the bridge of commercial vessels, as well as the monitoring of machinery spaces. The plan will result in the reduction of onboard crew from current manning levels down to a single watchkeeper and one engineer within 10 years. There is further provision within the new law that should implementation be achieved without major incident, these crewmembers will also be slowly phased out until the vessels are completely autonomous.
Speaking after the session, Captain Hiro, Japan’s lead representative to the IMO, explained the decision of his delegation to vote in support of the proposal. “This is clearly the future. The majority of maritime incidents and accidents are caused by operator error or inattention. With the development of advanced robotics by Japanese technology firms as well as other nations, we have reached a stage where to have anything other than a ‘New Optical Collision-Avoidance and Route Execution Watchbot’ (NO-CREW) system in place is wanton recklessness.” He then went on to explain that having developed the technology to manage a bridge it was an easy progression from there to creating an autonomous engine room management system, “As it is commonly known the bridge is a much more complicated workspace than the engine room, and one that requires more advanced decision making. The role of engineer proved easy to replicate. Our background studies indicated that the majority of the time EOOWs (Engineer Officer’s of the Watch) are either viewing movies or are on Skype. The new systems are able to focus continuously on temperatures and pressures, without numerous tea-breaks.”
In the event of a mechanical breakdown, the machinery spaces of all commercial vessels will be fitted with a network of tracks along which automated service machines can travel, in any sea-condition, to perform pre-programmed maintenance and troubleshooting. If the situation is beyond the capacity of the software, a live-link will be established via satellite to a shore-based, on-call engineer who will direct the operation remotely, using similar technology to current deep-sea ROV systems.
“That is where the jobs go.” Stated Heinz Burgher, the lead developer of the NO-CREW system. “They do not disappear, they simply go shore-based. With far fewer – if any – accidents occurring and no need to provide amenities for human crew, the cost of shipping will plummet. This will lead to an increase in trade, a growth in fleet sizes, and a demand for experienced operators to supply onshore redundancy. As the vast majority of the time the vessels will function autonomously, one bridge officer and one engineer can be on call for 20 or 30 vessels at a time without taxing the system. It is far more efficient. Efficient is good.”
With potentially the furthest reaching ramifications of any IMO convention passed since the inception of the UN-appointed organization, committee members seemed as surprised by its ratification as they were by its content.
“The required number of countries for this to become law was unbelievably low considering the sweeping change it represents,” said Ronny Hibrough, Australia’s permanent representative to the IMO. “It effectively rules out manned vessels within 10 years. I think a number of nations with vested interests in selling the technology that will become required by this convention have made a play here and we aren’t happy about it. A formal appeal is being written up as we speak and will be submitted by mail for consideration in 2-3 months time.”
In a follow-up statement Captain Ahab of IFSMA said, “The implication that current seafarers are inferior navigators to an untested robot is insulting and injurious. We feel that removing crew from sea-going vessels is at best ill advised. While we don’t dispute that the NO-CREW systems represent an improvement, we feel they should be monitored live and in person by qualified crewmembers. We will be advocating for an amendment to this convention that will result in a Crewed-NO-CREW arrangement. We intend to forward this proposal at the earliest opportunity, likely just after the convention comes into effect.”
In terms of its affect the luxury yacht sector, should the convention stand as is all commercially registered yachts embarking on international voyages will have to begin the implementation of a NO-CREW system by 2017. A joint statement was released by the PYA and SYBASS saying: “We intend to monitor the situation closely and look forward to being part of the development process once full implementation has been achieved.”