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What Autonomous Ships Mean for the U.S. Maritime Industry

The age of autonomous and remotely operated vessels has begun. The Norwegian-built Yara Birkeland is expected to become the first crewless cargo vessel to go into service late this year. And, Rolls Royce, one of the leading companies developing automated ship technology, believes crewless vessels will be commonplace on the seas by 2025. Crewless ships can make the waters safer and reduce the overall cost of moving goods across water. Some maritime professions, however, are threatened by these technological developments.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a maritime accident, it is in your best interest to contact a Houston maritime lawyer at The Krist Law Firm, P.C. for help. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact (281) 283-8500 today.

Autonomous and Remotely Operated Ships Will Make the Seas Safer

The sensors and communication technology to enable ships to safely navigate to a destination while avoiding collisions already exists. Rolls Royce and other shipbuilding firms are building situational-awareness systems that fuse imagery from cameras with lidar, radar, and satellite uplinks. This data can either be sent to a skipper who operates the ship remotely from shore, or to on-board computers that entirely replace the human element of control.

Autonomous and remotely operated ships will be more efficient and cheaper to run for shipowners. Since the new generation of ships won’t be manned, there’s no need for crew quarters, galleys, water and sewage, and other amenities that take up space, weight, and energy. Crewless ships will have less drag, consume less fuel, and be able to carry more cargo per voyage, resulting in significant economic and environmental gains.

The new generation of ships will also be safer. According to a 2012 report from Allianz, a German insurance company, between 75 and 96 percent of maritime accidents are caused by human error, and more specifically, crew fatigue. Much like driverless cars, automated and remotely operated vessels are expected to be involved in fewer collisions than their human-operated equivalents.

But accidents, even if fewer in number, will still happen. Crewless ships rely on systems that are subject to human error in design and manufacturing. Advanced hardware can fail, and within the millions of line of code powering the ships, there could be bugs that may cause accidents under unforeseen conditions. Engineering relies on trial and error, and many safety lessons will be learned once automated ships are put into use on the seas with real-life consequences.

Some Maritime Professions Are Threatened

Automated and remotely operated ships will endanger many maritime jobs. But, the decline of the maritime profession started long ago as crew numbers have steadily decreased for more than a century. The transition from sail to steam power beginning around the twentieth century significantly reduced the number of men needed to operate a vessel. And, in recent decades, advances in navigation, propulsion, and automation have seen crews on even the most massive ships reduced to a dozen sailors.

The remaining essential positions on vessels are highly specialized jobs. Ships rely on such complex electrical and mechanical systems that crews on ships look more like engineers and technicians than traditional sailors. Shipowners face a shortage of qualified individuals who are willing to go to sea for months at a time to monitor these systems.

The amount of people in the United States employed in maritime professions has been declining for a long time. The arrival of autonomous ships means there will be less available positions in many maritime jobs such as helmsmen, navigators, and deckhands. Many technical and engineering positions will move ashore, and those maritime professionals who continue to go to sea will enjoy a higher degree of safety than before.

Liability for Maritime Accidents and Autonomous Ships

The general rules governing liability in the case of an accident with an automated or remote-operated ship will not change significantly. The operator or owner of a crewless ship that causes an accident may be held responsible for any damages, as is the case with manned vessels. With crewless ships, accidents caused by negligence will become more rare, while the proportion of crashes caused by poorly designed or manufactured ships will likely increase. So, injured parties may have more opportunities to bring a product liability suit to the naval architecture firm and the shipyard that designed and built the vessel.

Contact The Krist Law Firm, P.C. For Help Today

If you are injured at sea, a maritime injury lawyer can help you get the compensation you need. At The Krist Law Firm, P.C., our Houston maritime lawyers fight on behalf of sailors, platform workers, and longshoremen who have been injured on the job. Our experience, knowledge, and dedication to effective advocacy enables us to achieve justice for our clients. If you were in a maritime accident, contact us today at (281) 283-8500 for a free and confidential consultation.