Autonomous vessels and workforce challenges


        The concept of autonomous vessels may sound very advanced and futuristic, but the idea is not new. For example, Japan had ideas for a "Highly reliable intelligent ship" which was a project that started from 1982 to 1988. Or we could also add Nikola Tesla, he who had the idea of the "radio-controlled" concept which dates back in 1898. Nonetheless, with the building blocks available the MUNIN Project came to life. This was the first large scale study launched by the European Union from 2012 to 2015 with a funding of 2.9 million euros. Here, the concept was to study the transformation of a Handymax Dry Bulk Carrier into a fully unmanned ship. Consequently, with the changing aspect of control we must define the levels of manning functions on a ship :
- 1) Continuously manned control : the crew is available onboard the vessel.
- 2) Periodically unmanned control : the crew is onboard but there can be periods in which the control positions are unmanned.
- 3) Fully unmanned control : no crew onboard.

    Since the MUNIN project, we can notice a steady rise in studies for fully unmanned (3) vessels as they are seen as long-term solutions for the reduction of operational expenses, attraction of new and young professionals in the industry and, finally, reduce environmental impacts. The simulation allowed to emphasize the capabilities of advanced sensor systems, new forms of maintenance interaction systems, remote manoeuvring, engine monitoring... and so on. In the final analysis, the MUNIN project came to the conclusion that unmanned ships can sail intercontinental voyages as safe and efficient as manned ships (1).

On one hand, if the MUNIN Project were to become a reality in the near future then this would lead to the complete restructuration of the maritime industry economics. In example the shift in labor demands, since vessels wouldn't need a crew onboard at all times. The project was set as a hypothesis of how an unmanned ship would impact the maritime industry, it is important to note that the IMO (International Maritime Organization) has no rules put in place for this reality. Thus, this means that all rules take into account the existence of a crew aboard a vessel. Therefore, we will conclude by saying that "autonomous vessels" does not mean unmanned vessels. 

On the other hand, we can define autonomous as utilizing the already present systems but in a more effective matter. Let's take Kongsberg Gruppen for example. They take evolution of autonomous vessels as a means to transform the logistical infrastructure to enable more safety, cleaner shipping and be more efficient. They have actually been heavily inspired by the MUNIN Project. Consequently, in Norway they have been granted the concept of auto docking (such as the auto landing for airplanes) and is being used 89% of the time (based on 2020 data). This shows the effective evolution and maturity of autonomous presence with the ongoing possibility of a human to intervene in any possible scenario.



    If we were to come to a fully unmanned ship, how would that affect the ongoing maritime labor economics ?

        It is important to note that there's a change in attitudes regarding the youth. They search for instant gratification, yet the maritime industry is aging quite drastically. In illustration, the average age of Washington's maritime workforce in 2013 is upwards of 54 years old. We can define an aging industry once the average workforce age is 50 years old or older. 

Furthermore, the lean towards more autonomous shipping will restructure how a shipping business operates. Specifically, the evolution will lead to new capabilities being required and roles being changed. For example, the establishment of the SCC, Shore Control Center. In order for it to be cost effective, it must oversee operations of a unmanned ship. With the growing co-operation between man and technology, this gave two principal controls : Remote and Supervisory. In a few words, the SCC enables more remote work thus reducing long term sea voyages for the crew. This means there will be a decrease in the need of a crew onboard ships and an increase for onshore jobs. In addition, if there is no crew than we can assume that a vessel does not need a bridge, for example. Thus, we can conclude that this will lead to new ship designs focusing towards maximizing cargo capacity and slow steaming. 

The impact of automation will vary depending on the demographic trend and groups, for example, low and middle skilled jobs (that is to say, crane operators, dockers and so on) and aging/ higher wage workforces face a greater risk. However, highly skilled occupations (i.e ship captains) will be less impacted by automation for the time being. Finally lower wage and younger workforces are likely to see a delayed presence of new technologies taking over. 
In the end, the maritime industry will have a demand for highly-skilled laborers and offer less positions for middle laborers, namely the workforce allowing the liaison between habors and vessels. 
Equally important is the aspect of readiness and how it will impact the labour markets. On the technological point, it isn't new to say that developed countries (China, United States...) have a higher advantage versus developing ones (Africa, South America). The manned labour in developing countries will have a slower adoption to technologies, thus slowing the risk of disappearing middle skilled jobs. Finally, to take action towards the transitory phase of autonomous vessels it is important to re-skill and prepare workforces for the transformations related to technology and automation.

    In conclusion, we have seen that the aspect of autonomous vessels isn't new but the maturity of technology is leading to new horizons for the maritime industry. Most notably the conclusions pulled from the MUNIN Project and on. As of today we will notice a majority of vessels being periodically unmanned. In order to create a fully autonomous vessel there is still a lot of work to be done, however the hypothesis is a plausible reality. Moreover, such vessels will be subject to a reaction in the labor of the industry. And as one of the major transportation methods, this cannot be left unheard of. Because, once a ship is unmanned where will the middle skilled workers go as their job have disappeared ? 


Kongsberg Gruppen, *autonomous vessels, a concept in the making*, 2020


Norwegian Forum For Autonomous Ships 


DNV, Remote-controlled and autonomous ships position paper


Characterization of Autonomy in Merchant Ships, Rødseth, Ø.J.; Nordahl, H.; Hoem, Snilstveit Å. (2018)

MUNIN Project, An Overview

Maritime industry is growing, but the workforce is aging - Sassen 2017

Rolls Royce, Autonomous Ships - The Next Step

Review of Maritime Transport, 2020

Aging Workforce Challenges, Verlinden

Copyright ©. Tous droits réservés.