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Interview: How Will Seafarers Be Impacted by Smart Ships?

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One of the examples is the construction of the world’s first electric and autonomous containership, Yara Birkeland, which is expected to start autonomous operation in 2019.

Numerous benefits of autonomous ships have been identified including lower costs, more efficient use of space in ship design, more efficient use of fuel and lower risk of human error on board, which has been the main cause of accidents at sea.

However, the smart ship revolution brings a myriad of challenges that are yet to be resolved, aside to technological hurdles. These involve resolving the issue of navigational safety, protection from cyber threats and creation of a major incentive for owners and operators to invest in autonomous ships before they can become mainstream.

A major issue that also needs to be addressed is the human factor and the immediate impact of smart ships on seafarers.


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World Maritime News spoke with David Appleton,Professional and Technical Officer at Nautilus International to get a better understanding of what autonomous shipping would mean for seafarers.

WMN: In a world where seafarers continue to be underpaid, exploited and often abandoned by shipowners without pay or even basic provisions on board what does the introduction of smart/automated ships mean for seafarers? What are the main concerns/benefits?

Appleton: Regardless of what is possible technically, there will be no widespread adoption of autonomous ships until the concept makes financial sense for shipowners. For those owners operating at the very bottom of the industry, there will be little incentive to invest in new technology when they can continue to exploit seafarers with impunity as they have done historically.

That being said, we do believe that if technology is used in the correct way to, reduce seafarer workloads, assist in improving safety and improve the quality of life onboard rather than being used as an excuse to further reduce crew numbers then there could be considerable benefits.

It is also possible that the introduction of more advanced technology could act as a catalyst to drag the international regulatory regime with regards to crew training kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This can only be a good thing as it is not fit for purpose with the technology we have installed on ships currently let alone with what is proposed for the future.

WMN: Current reports indicate that smart ships, among other features, would be managed from land-based facilities, thereby eliminating safety risks, but also the need for crew members. In your opinion, how likely is this to happen, and when can we expect it to become the mainstream?

Appleton: We believe the human error argument put forward by proponents of autonomous shipping is overly simplistic and somewhat misleading.

For a start, if you move the human operator from sea to ashore, you have not removed the risk but simply transferred it and also introduced the possibility of new types of risk. There is evidence from the airline industry that increasing automation of systems can lead to skill degradation and impairment of human performance in emergency situations – precisely when optimum performance is most needed.

International voyages will not be possible before 2028

Research carried out into the proposed model of shore-based supervision of autonomous ships has shown that whilst the number of accidents may be reduced, the consequences of accidents are likely to be much worse with no humans onboard to take mitigating action. Additionally, the model of the shore-based control center has been shown to create serious problems regarding situational awareness due to geographical separation from the vessel. At the moment all of the attention seems to be focused on what is technically feasible but insufficient consideration has been given to safety and social factors.

Whilst there are some high profile projects underway to test the concept most notably the Yara Birkeland that is due to be delivered next year, there are still significant hurdles in place that must be overcome before we see widespread adoption. International voyages will not be possible until the regulatory regime is in place with the IMO having agreed to begin work this year. Even the most optimistic of observers do not envisage this work being completed before 2028. Then there is still the biggest obstacle which is the financial case. You also have to consider that when purchasing a vessel shipowners would normally expect to achieve 15 to 25 years’ service from that vessel so whilst there will be a small number of specialist applications, gradually increasing over the years, I believe we are still a very long way off from ‘mainstream’ adoption.

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