Crewless tug no longer unthinkable

The industry is still some years away from the first unmanned and autonomous tug undertaking a tow. If such a thing appeared until recently unthinkable, consider the incredible strides forward taken with unmanned engine rooms, auto-helm, ARPA and now AIS, satellite communications, GPS, electronic navigation and displays and now hybrid power trains. That it is coming seems inevitable.

With the benefit of transferable software and AI developed in the automotive field, the investment for the industry may not prove to be a great impediment. That the aviation industry is light years ahead is also a fact.

Yara Birkeland, which is due to come into service in 2020 (originally 2018), will reportedly be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous ship. It is being built to sail within the coastal waters of Norway. Some clues as to the design, specifications and operational capabilities of future unmanned vessels can be gleaned from the first generation of such vessels, but there will inevitably be significant differences between an unmanned 80m coastal container ship and a tug, and in turn between a deep-sea towage and a harbour tug.

Understanding the design and operation of these ships is key to assessing how they will operate within a legal context. For example, many of the concerns around automation relate to unmanned ships undertaking operations within congested and/or tidal ports, as opposed to a transit on the high seas. Nevertheless, Yara Birkelandis designed for loading and discharging to be done automatically using electric cranes and equipment. The ship will also be equipped with an automatic mooring system; berthing and unberthing will be done without human intervention and no doubt, wherever possible, without tugs. Personally, I cannot conceive a tricky anchor-handling operation taking place without the judgement by the eye, touch and feel of a tug skipper, but I stand to be corrected.

The economic driver for all this, as always, is the cost of labour: not just wages but victualling, accommodation space, air-conditioning, flights, HR departments, sickness and injury. Remove that, and the operator has a competitive edge, at least for a time. It is however the very absence of crew on board that is said to pose the main challenge from regulatory, legal and contractual standpoints.

The regulatory side is primarily in the hands of the IMO. Already SOLAS and STCW are under review by the Maritime Safety Committee which sat only recently in June but that will take years to change. Indeed, there is resistance to change: the COLREGS have materially altered only once in 50 years, to allow reference to lookout by radar in 1972. Class will be more nimble, responsive at least to innovation at the design stage. As to standard form contracts such as TOWCON, TOWHIRE, WINDTIME and SUPPLYTIME, these are reviewed and updated periodically by committees generally responsive to operating changes (which cannot be said for the UK Standard Conditions of Towage, unamended since 1986).

In the meantime, however, such contracts can be changed at will between contracting parties, as circumstances dictate. That poses an interesting challenge to brokers and, particularly, the lawyers being asked to draft or amend in a legal and regulatory vacuum. One example is human error which plays a large part in the liability regime and apportionment of risk: how does one attribute fault when there is no-one on board to blame?

By way of illustration, a situation we are likely to encounter will be a large tug, unmanned, at least for the ocean crossing, towing an unmanned vessel, and suffering a serious incident. This may not in fact be so complex if the tug is being operated remotely by a competent watchkeeper. On the other hand, a more difficult question may be whether such remote tug master should be lawfully entitled to decide whether to enter ice?

Then there is the question of regulatory jurisdiction over such remote crew: would their actions no longer be subject to the law of the flag state of the tug, since they are not on board, but that of their place of work, or both?

If such incident were caused or contributed to by an undiscoverable human programming error, can the tug owner argue that he has exercised due diligence to make his tug seaworthy? In truth, I sense there is at least nothing new here, as the programming of automation, removing human intervention, has been around for many years. Broadly speaking, the seas have got safer as a result.

We should therefore resist a repetition of Y2K syndrome as did a Merseyside pilot delegate at Tugnology 2019in Liverpool this year. Having listened to a series of presentations by systems developers extolling the benefits of big data in the analysis of risk in tug and harbour tow operations, he stood up to say that a pilot only needed three things to perform his job well: a mobile phone, a pencil and a pad of paper.

Therefore while risk allocation will require amendment as a result of the changes in the way ships operate, many of the changes will be ‘around the edges’ and the fundamental scheme of operation of charterparties and service contracts may look fairly similar to existing forms. While many people are completely unprepared for the upcoming changes I am pleased to report that I am not one of them: my pencil is already sharpened.