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Autonomous vessels may change the face of seafarers

Autonomous vessels

Captains, shipmasters may not be generic designations once remote vessel operation kicks in

The International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Safety Committee recently finalised its analysis of ship safety treaties, and assessed the next steps for regulating Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS). This might result in seafarers having new designations.

Evolving with automation
Autonomous vessels are not new, and there were several speculations of it potentially replacing the veteran seafarers armed with years of training. The coming of autonomous vessels might re-designate seafarers in accordance with their skillsets measured against prevailing degrees of automation. The world’s seafarers operate on a similar set of best practices at sea. However, when technology comes into the picture, the industry has to evolve with the developments.

IMO’s considerations had to take into consideration the respective conditions under the Maritime Safety Committee’s (MSC) jurisdiction and if they would affect MASS, along with the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea’s (SOLAS) agreements. Four degrees of autonomy were defined. The first is a crewed ship with automated processes and decision support. The second degree is remotely-controlled vessels with crew onboard. Third degree refers to remotely controlled vessels without crew onboard, and fourth being fully autonomous vessels.

Amalgamating the regulations mentioned above which are relatively conventional, the industry can expect new MASS jargons, including a possible new definition of “master” and “crew” applicable across the four respective degrees. Another interesting question would be: would that personnel at the remote control centre be designated as seafarers?

This translates to a possible “new breed” of seafarers and suite of practices for autonomous vessels. Maintenance, watchkeeping, fire-fighting, even search and rescue will be infused with new concepts and principles. However, automation is not to be deemed as a replacement for conventional maritime. Therefore, the best scenario where the industry can hope, is a new breed of hybrid (seafarers).


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