Written by James Fanshawe CBE FNI, Chairman of the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulation Task Force.

The march towards autonomy and the search for a viable marine insurance framework are successfully accelerating. Finding class-approved solutions becomes clearer to those designing and operating these vessels, as well as those with regulatory and other responsibilities. At the same time, there is evidence that customer demand is growing for those who see autonomous vessels as a viable stepping stone to zero emissions.

As the debate continues over how these vessels operate, from a regulatory and legal perspective, an encouraging balance is being struck to depolarize some arguments and find workable solutions. One constant is the role of humans in autonomous ship systems. They may not be on ships, but those ships will not be able to operate without their engagement.

Humans have weaknesses that are widely analyzed, producing a plethora of statistics that establish, among other things, that humans are the root cause of most maritime incidents. To complicate the picture, we are now introducing the dimension that ships will be monitored and controlled by personnel based in shore offices.

There are some basic assumptions about Remote Control Center (RCC) personnel: their core must be maritime; they must have seafaring experience and must maintain their skill level; they should be trained to the appropriate standards; and their welfare will have to be properly taken into account. The nature of remote vessel operations can only intensify the importance of these people-related factors.

What is well-being? It can be defined as “a positive outcome that makes sense to people and to many sectors of society, because it tells us that people perceive that their lives are going well”. Good living and working conditions are fundamental to being happy, healthy and successful. This includes fostering good relationships; be physically active; having a thirst to learn new skills and a desire to give back to others, while paying attention to the present moment, known as mindfulness.

To highlight this, Version Five of the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulation Task Force Code of Practice has a new section titled “Remote Control Center Workforce Welfare Management”. in Chapter 11. The new version of the Code of Practice can be downloaded from: https://www.maritimeuk.org/priorities/innovation/maritime-uk-autonomous-systems-regulatory-working-group/mass- uk-industry-conduct-principles-and-code-practice-2021-v5/

Managing workforce well-being must be a priority. Focusing on human and system performance is necessary to ensure the highest level of safety, as well as to meet an obligation to the health of the workforce.

Human factors should be an integral part of both the planning and operation of any RCC, based on strong leadership and management. These should cover:

  • Being fully aware of situational awareness when managing risk.
  • Build a “just culture” to promote alertness and raising issues, countering the risks of distractions, complacency and memory lapses.
  • Enable strong and resilient language of work communication structures and protocols.
  • Development of a strong culture based on safety behaviors and adherence to practices that underpin safe operations.
  • Ensure continuity of practices between RCCs and local operations.
  • Foster effective teamwork between RCC staff and external organizations.
  • Ensure that a capable and competent workforce is ready to operate in routine and emergency situations.
  • Plan operations, staffing ratio and resources to limit the accumulation of real or perceived pressures that can degrade performance.
  • Minimize distractions and put in place barriers to ensure operations in the RCC are not compromised by unnecessary interference.
  • Implement fatigue mitigation measures and develop a fatigue-aware workforce.
  • Prioritize the fitness for duty of the workforce and provide sufficient support in case fitness for duty is threatened.

Human factors should be incorporated into the design and layout of RCCs from the outset, and the risks of prolonged use of display screen equipment should be assessed and mitigated where possible. When RCC operations require a shift work pattern, particular attention should be paid to mitigating fatigue: avoiding long hours of continuous work; balancing work during the period of “circadian depression”; set up effective handover periods at the beginning and end of the shift; and adequate recovery time between shifts.

In short, the risks of being wrong with people must be paramount. Failure to meet this objective will compromise the safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Vessels (MASS) with the inherent impact on the wider maritime community. But this can be mitigated by considering sound operational practices, design factors, and effective planning. Although this article is focused on autonomy, it should be emphasized that the key points are equally relevant in any working environment, afloat and ashore.