07 Dec 2023
by Dr Sam Andrews

Future-proofing competency standards on autonomous surface ships

IMarEST participated in the second session of the IMO Intersessional Working Group on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), where Gordon Meadow (CMarTech, FIMarEST, IMarEST MASS SIG member & MASSPeople Chair) and Ross Macfarlane (IMarEST MASS SIG member & MASSPeople ex officio), proposed new competency standards.

“MASSPeople is an initiative that began in 2021 with the view that people and skills are always the last things to be considered whenever legislation changes to facilitate the adoption of new technology in the maritime industry.  

“We want to pre-empt that by starting the discussion on people and skills early on, so standards change at the same time as the technology does,” says Macfarlane, who is also Remote Operation Centre Manager with Fugro. 

The paper - Bridging Competency Gaps for MASS Operators in Alignment with the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) Framework – sought to establish clear competence standards for maritime autonomous surface ships on the support, operational, and management functional levels. 

Shifting skillsets 

“[There is a] gap between the STCW competency framework and the competencies required to perform new functions,” says Meadow, who is also founder and CEO of SeaBot Maritime.  

“A review of the skills being taught today is required to ensure they are transferable into the modern workplace,” agrees Macfarlane, adding there is often a misconception that automation will one day fully replace the work of seafarers. 

Many vessels, particularly large commercial vessels, already have some degree of automation embedded within their systems. As the technology continues to develop, the roles of seafarers will change. 

As one example, monitoring and managing engine performance has begun to be done remotely as we see new fuel types coming online. Meadow says there are two focal areas to be considered here. Firstly, “Remote operations and how we conduct operations when we’re somewhere else and potentially with distributed teams, and also how we conduct remote engineering, whether that’s monitoring or intervention or both.” 

“[Secondly] there are those people on board – how do we help them to become empowered to work alongside more complex automation systems onboard?” 

Adapting training for the new competencies needed will take a three-fold approach. “You’re going to have conventional seafarers doing more modernised training. Then you’re going to have a cross-skill situation where some seafarers transfer their skills. [And] there is this new third route, where you have new people who are purely going to be remote and autonomous ship systems operators,” explains Macfarlane.  

Future skillsets requirements will also be much broader than now. “[Currently] you’re more pigeonholed – you’re a bridge officer, an electrician, an engineer,” says Meadow. “We will still need specialisms, but [people] will also have an understanding and knowledge of the other tasks.” 

Collaboration towards a common goal 

Submitting proposals to the IMO is no simple affair. The content has to be of the highest quality and the group submitting the work needs to be recognised by the IMO.  

In practice, this means the submitter has to be an IMO member flag state or an approved international non-governmental organisation (INGO). IMarEST has been an INGO recognised by the IMO since 1985 and maintains a consultative status. 

While the process of submitting a proposal may seem laborious, this helps ensure the evidence submitted is produced by experts in the field, is of high quality and is duly peer reviewed before being discussed. “MASSPeople is not an NGO, and it’s not a flag state, but we were able to work with IMarEST collegially towards a common interest to submit this paper and other papers planned for future sessions,” Meadow says. 

The paper was one of several discussed at the IMO’s Inter-Sessional Working Group. “We spent a day working on defining what a concept of operations and an operational envelope for uncrewed surface vehicles are,” says Macfarlane. 

“The workforce is a fundamental part of the maritime industry and will be for time immortal,” Meadow suggests. “We are encountering workforce shortages in all walks of maritime, but someone still [has] got to build a ship. Someone [has] got to fix the ship. Someone [has] got to operate the ship. How we do that is changing, and we will co-exist with intelligent ship systems as partners, not adversaries, so we need to ensure seafarers are prepared.”

Discover more about MASSPeople; Want to join the MASS SIG?

Main image: The autonomous surface vessel (ASV) RNMB HEBE; Credit: Shutterstock