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Risk Report: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.

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The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.

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“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.

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“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Manufacturing

More Robots Enter Into Manufacturing Industry

With more jobs utilizing technology advancements, manufacturing turns to cobots to help ease talent gaps.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 6 min read

The U.S. manufacturing industry is at a crossroads.

Faced with a shortfall of as many as two million workers between now and 2025, the sector needs to either reinvent itself by making it a more attractive career choice for college and high school graduates or face extinction. It also needs to shed its image as a dull, unfashionable place to work, where employees are stuck in dead-end repetitive jobs.

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Added to that are the multiple risks caused by the increasing use of automation, sensors and collaborative robots (cobots) in the manufacturing process, including product defects and worker injuries. That’s not to mention the increased exposure to cyber attacks as manufacturers and their facilities become more globally interconnected through the use of smart technology.

If the industry wishes to continue to move forward at its current rapid pace, then manufacturers need to work with schools, governments and the community to provide educational outreach and apprenticeship programs. They must change the perception of the industry and attract new talent. They also need to understand and to mitigate the risks presented by the increased use of technology in the manufacturing process.

“Loss of knowledge due to movement of experienced workers, negative perception of the manufacturing industry and shortages of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and skilled production workers are driving the talent gap,” said Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting.

“The risks associated with this are broad and span the entire value chain — [including]  limitations to innovation, product development, meeting production goals, developing suppliers, meeting customer demand and quality.”

The Talent Gap

Manufacturing companies are rapidly expanding. With too few skilled workers coming in to fill newly created positions, the talent gap is widening. That has been exacerbated by the gradual drain of knowledge and expertise as baby boomers retire and a decline in technical education programs in public high schools.

Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting

“Most of the millennials want to work for an Amazon, Google or Yahoo, because they seem like fun places to work and there’s a real sense of community involvement,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance, Daimler Trucks North America. “In contrast, the manufacturing industry represents the ‘old school’ where your father and grandfather used to work.

“But nothing could be further from the truth: We offer almost limitless opportunities in engineering and IT, working in fields such as electric cars and autonomous driving.”

To dispel this myth, Holden said Daimler’s Educational Outreach Program assists qualified organizations that support public high school educational programs in STEM, CTE (career technical education) and skilled trades’ career development.

It also runs weeklong technology schools in its manufacturing facilities to encourage students to consider manufacturing as a vocation, he said.

“It’s all essentially a way of introducing ourselves to the younger generation and to present them with an alternative and rewarding career choice,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to get across the message that just because we make heavy duty equipment doesn’t mean we can’t be a fun and educational place to work.”

Rise of the Cobot

Automation undoubtedly helps manufacturers increase output and improve efficiency by streamlining production lines. But it’s fraught with its own set of risks, including technical failure, a compromised manufacturing process or worse — shutting down entire assembly lines.

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More technologically advanced machines also require more skilled workers to operate and maintain them. Their absence can in turn hinder the development of new manufacturing products and processes.

Christina Villena, vice president of risk solutions, The Hanover Insurance Group, said the main risk of using cobots is bodily injury to their human coworkers. These cobots are robots that share a physical workspace and interact with humans. To overcome the problem of potential injury, Villena said, cobots are placed in safety cages or use force-limited technology to prevent hazardous contact.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them.” — David Carlson, U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader, Marsh

“Technology must be in place to prevent cobots from exerting excessive force against a human or exposing them to hazardous tools or chemicals,” she said. “Traditional robots operate within a safety cage to prevent dangerous contact. Failure or absence of these guards has led to injuries and even fatalities.”

The increasing use of interconnected devices and the Cloud to control and collect data from industrial control systems can also leave manufacturers exposed to hacking, said David Carlson, Marsh’s U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader. Given the relatively new nature of cyber as a risk, however, he said coverage is still a gray area that must be assessed further.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them,” he said. “Therefore, companies need to think beyond the traditional risks, such as workers’ compensation and product liability.”

Another threat, said Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting practice leader, Lockton Companies, is any malfunction of the software used to operate cobots. Then there is the machine not being able to cope with the increased workload when production is ramped up, he said.

“If your software goes wrong, it can stop the machine working or indeed the whole manufacturing process,” he said. “[Or] you might have a worker who is paid by how much they can produce in an hour who decides to turn up the dial, causing the machine to go into overdrive and malfunction.”

Potential Solutions

Spiers said risk managers need to produce a heatmap of their potential exposures in the workplace attached to the use of cobots in the manufacturing process, including safety and business interruption. This can also extend to cyber liability, he said.

“You need to understand the risk, if it’s controllable and, indeed, if it’s insurable,” he said. “By carrying out a full risk assessment, you can determine all of the relevant issues and prioritize them accordingly.”

By using collective learning to understand these issues, Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting, said companies can improve their safety and manufacturing processes.

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it.” — Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it,” Mayo said. “They can also use detective controls to anticipate these issues and react accordingly by ensuring they have the appropriate controls and coverage in place to deal with them.”

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Manufacturing risks today extend beyond traditional coverage, like workers’ compensation, property, equipment breakdown, automobile, general liability and business interruption, to new risks, such as cyber liability.

It’s key to use a specialized broker and carrier with extensive knowledge and experience of the industry’s unique risks.

Stacie Graham, senior vice president and general manager, Liberty Mutual’s national insurance central division, said there are five key steps companies need to take to protect themselves and their employees against these risks. They include teaching them how to use the equipment properly, maintaining the same high quality of product and having a back-up location, as well as having the right contractual insurance policy language in place and plugging any potential coverage gaps.

“Risk managers need to work closely with their broker and carrier to make sure that they have the right contractual controls in place,” she said. “Secondly, they need to carry out on-site visits to make sure that they have the right safety practices and to identify the potential claims that they need to mitigate against.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]