Recent aviation disasters highlight disconnects wrought by automation, but shipping has its own examples, says Gavin Lipsith
Recent air tragedies involving the new Boeing 737 Max have reignited debate about the design and implementation of automation systems. It is a discussion in which shipping technology suppliers – especially those selling automated solutions and a vision of future vessel autonomy – must take an active role.
At the International Maritime Employers’ Counil conference last week, recruitment and training committee president elect Dr Konstantinos Poulis voiced concern about the “product management orientation” of automation development in shipping. Primary focus is on whether automation can be achieved rather than identifying potential ramifications of the technological change.
While the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crashes have brought these implications into sharp relief, they are not new. In a 1983 paper, psychologist Lisanne Bainbridge highlighted the Ironies of Automation. One is that designers of automation systems can be a source of safety issues themselves. The second is that operators become less engaged and skilled as a result of reduced attention and practice, making their increasingly infrequent interventions less effective. But even as crew are being deskilled training becomes more onerous – operators must understand both the complex systems and the increasingly unusual circumstances in which they will have to intervene.
It is not hard to see these ironies at play in recent aviation disasters. Shipping has its own examples, albeit with less loss of life. In December 2000, shuttle tanker Randgrid came loose from its moorings, discharging 12 tonnes of crude oil into the North Sea because an engineer pressed the F9 button on the wrong screen – a clear failure of design. In 2005, container ship Savannah Express collided with a linkspan at Southampton docks. The chief engineer was not aware that the innovative electro-hydraulic main engine automation system would shut down the engine if all pressure sensors failed.
More recently, there is the near-catastrophe off Norway’s coast with cruise ship Viking Sky. Although the final investigation has yet to be published, there are already some who are asking why crew could not override the automatic engine shutdown that occurred due to a low oil pressure alarm. Losing power in such difficult conditions surely outweighs the risks associated with temporary under-lubrication.
As evidenced by their lead role in autonomy research projects and pilot tests, technology suppliers are the driving force behind increasing automation. The responsibility lies with them to show that impacts on seafarer skills and safety have been considered in the design and implementation of automation systems.