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Salvors need a voice in autonomous shipping development

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A panel at Seatrade Maritime Salvage and Wreck highlighted a distance between salvors and the development of autonomous vessels.

Representing salvors on the panel, George Tsavliris, Principal, Tsavliris Salvage Group said he was becoming increasingly worried as the panel went on and the list of unanswered questions around salvaging autonomous vessels grew.

Among his concerns, Tsavliris worried about the expediency of getting critical communications in place in an emergency, and the ability to get necessary critical information about a vessel and its cargo from owners and operators.

Edwin Pang, Founder Arcsilea Ltd and Chair, RINA IMO Committee said salvaging autonomous vessels will pose new challenges to salvors as they approach, not least of all in gaining access to and control of ships.

“You'd be trying to understand how to access the vessel. Because it's not normally designed for human control, you'll be trying to work out how to get on board the vessel, what passwords you need to gain access to any systems that are on board, you’ll have a new interface with the remote operating center that you never used to have,” said Pang.

Local control will also need to be considered in ship designs which under normal operating conditions have no crew, but may need local controls for emergencies. Maintenance will also need to be considered for vessels operating without crews, as manual fittings like doors may become inoperable if left for years on end.

Pang also theorised that salvors will need a clear and more thorough report on the hazardous areas of autonomous ships, a package of information to help salvors safely board vessels with complex and potentially dangerous systems like alternative and mixed fuel systems.

Jonathan Goulding, Senior Associate & Mariner, HFW said that communication between operator and salvor may be largely unchanged, except for the location of those communicating.

“Your communications should be fairly straightforward, that remote control operation center is just going to be be very, very different. Rather than speaking to the master by VHF about what's going on, you maybe speak to remote operation centers,” said Goulding.

Goulding encouraged salvors to get involved in trials of autonomous ships to make their concerns and requests known. “I think there’s going to have to be some liaising with salvors where these trials are going on, and maybe doing some exercises as to how you're going to be able to respond to these casualties. It is certainly something that should be thought of, or maybe taken forward by the ISU or elsewhere,” said Goulding.

Nazli Selek, Senior Partner, NSN raised the question of perception of danger, how that is handled for a remote controlled or autonomous vessel and who raises the alarm in the event of an emergency. Selek noted the different tolerances for risk regionally, calling on her own experience in the Bosphorus Strait.

“Cases that we come to in the Bosphorous, for many of the private salvage companies might be a 10 minutes, 15 minutes, maximum 20 minutes work. This may not be considered a danger by an English judge or arbitrator, but it is dangerous for Istanbul, for the Bosphorus. There are areas where ships are trading in where there are residential places around and it is a danger for a ship to lose power or ground,” said Selek.

Selek questioned the ability of a remote operator to properly judge risk in narrow channels from a remote location and called for the issue to be properly considered as regulations develop.

“I was never aware in my wildest imagination just how ignorant we are. You couple all of these features together and it’s a Nightmare. It’s like embarking on a new industry or a new business,” said Tsavliris.

Tsavliris said that salvage is a complex sector where experience can sometimes work against you. “At the end of the day, the one who survives is not the strongest, or the most intelligent, but the one who is more adaptive to change.”

As it stands, salvors are uneducated in the matter and need time to adapt, said Tsavliris.

Pang lifted the mood with his final point “Now, I want to end on a slightly hopeful note, because we just scared everybody as to the unknown dangers that we're going to face. The MASS industry is at a very early stage. And what that means is that there is the opportunity for those of you who are interested to get involved to help shape what some of these standards and regulations and practice good practices might look like.”