Ship automation: Promises and challenges affecting sea operations


Maintaining and operating a ship, be it a passenger ship, container or tanker, is a complex and time consuming endeavor. Most vessels use proprietary control and monitoring systems, operated by fewer crew members, making a relatively simple job difficult and exhausting.

This raises several challenges in terms of achieving a reliable, energy efficient, and safe vessel operation under tough conditions. For the proper functioning of the ship and potential economic saving, there has been a very rapid, even revolutionary development of automated systems for guidance in critical situations, engine control and supervision of cargo handling operations.

A wide range of smart controls and automation helps the operators more efficiently and safely operate and maintain the ship systems. They deduce information overload, maintenance and calibration errors.

Automated navigation and control systems could support the crew in steering a vessel, increasing safety, provide right & clear decision making and optimizing operational efficiency. This provides great relief to the crew, and creates new opportunities for optimized planning, optimal interaction, and streamlined operations without human interaction.

Automated systems can simplify several key lock and bridge functions and navigational decisions. They are:

  • Propulsion Control – Monitoring and controlling the propulsion power availability, temperatures and pressure under all operating conditions. Achieving optimum performance and longevity of the engine.
  • Alarm, Monitoring and Control – Real-time transmission of monitoring and control information. Monitoring and control for electrical, auxiliary, steering, and damage control functions. Monitoring of signals all of the time for fully redundant data communications.
  • Power Management – Ensuring electrical power generation, availability and auxiliary power management.
  • Camera Surveillance – Video surveillance and recording
  • Electronic Incident Board – Maximizing internal situational awareness
  • Automated Decision Support – Decision support for the operator
  • On-Board Training / Land-Based Training – Advanced operator training
  • Helideck Support – Safe helideck operations
  • Remote Access – Ship information available at shore

Despite benefits, increasing automation can cause the loss of situation awareness, which can significantly affect performance in abnormal, time critical circumstances. It can have severe negative effects due to the lack of in-depth understanding of automation weakness and automated control, lack of standardization, and other human factors like fatigue, over-reliance on automation, under-manning due to automation.

Experts say that problems in fully understanding the automatic systems is one of the main causes of ships accidents nowadays. They have identified some specific issues related to the errors of operators of automated systems in use. They are as follows:

  • There is sometimes over-reliance on automation of the crews, which leads to a false sense of security, that the automation will always handle the situation safely.
  • Too much confidence in the data presented by the automated control systems and this leads to a lack of additional manual supervision.
  • Lack of understanding of automated control systems and any inherent weaknesses they may have.
  • Improper ergonomic devices that can have a detrimental impact on the performance and increase the incidence of errors.
  • Some data displayed on the screen of automatic control systems, human-computer interface, can be very confusing for the user.
  • Control systems designed to run automatically are not sufficiently obvious, so it is not always possible to quickly obtain error information.
  • The consequences that may arise if a ship crews are aware that the control system will automatically operate in case of operator error.
  • Errors in the maintenance and calibration, development of automatic control systems can lead to catastrophic consequences.
  • Lack of standardization by different manufacturers impossible to understand all the characteristics of individual systems.

Let’s sum up. Automation has great benefits, but if not designed or used properly, it can lead to reduced rather than enhanced operational efficiency, and even to large additional costs of repairs and serious accidents. Studies suggest that poor equipment design and inadequate training and knowledge about automated equipment are the key contributing causes in 35 percent of the casualties in marine incidents. Efficient automation, therefore, depends on the expertise of the staff, which in turn depends on the education of the crew.