In the first of a series of video interviews with English -speaking sector experts, it was my great pleasure to speak to Mr. David Russo, an attorney at a legal consultancy firm Lewis Brisbois in San Francisco, specializing in the legal risks of autonomous shipping.
Last year Mr. Russo kindly contributed to Port News with a thought-provoking article “Autonomous ships carrying uncertainties”.
Now, exactly a year later I asked him if he could update us on how the US smart-ship scenario had been developing since we had last spoken and if the sector could in some way be affected by the very recent election results.
Mr Russo said there had been some, albeit slow, developments. The most significant step forward being the US Coastguard’s new approach towards smart ship use, which not only reveals their desire to become more directly involved in the project-design phase of these kinds of vessels, but also just how seriously they are taking this new potential shipping option from a regulatory standpoint.
Mr Russo explained that just this summer the United States Coastguard had begun working in this area. They sent a request for public comment on developing technologies for automated and autonomous vessels. This is usually the first step in the government agency’s efforts to become involved in a new area or project, and often precedes its promulgation of new regulations. In their ‘Request for Information on Integration of Automated and Autonomous Commercial Vessels and Vessel Technologies into the Maritime Transportation System’ the Coast Guard asks for “input about infrastructure, impact, impact on the workforce, cybersecurity concerns, the regulatory environment”, as David Russo puts it. He considers their involvement as a major step forward:
“This will go on for several more months as the coastguard digests all this information and begins the process of what we hope will be a good regulatory scheme. So, we’re starting the process.”
As far as the US general election results are concerned, Mr. Russo did not seem to think that a change in leadership would particularly effect research in the autonomous shipping field: “It’s hard to say whether a change in presidents will make a difference. Generally, it does not because much of the coastguard’s authority comes from congress, but a difference emphasis on where to spend money sometimes makes a change.”
Going back to the issue of the Coast Guard’s recent show of interest, I asked the attorney if their intervention meant that autonomous shipping is gaining increasing recognition in his country.
“Absolutely,” he confirmed. “it also means that it may start to get some real resources… as well as the industry, if they know the coastguard is starting to get involved will feel like they have support and will put more of their own resources into developing the technology.”
He added that there had also been an interesting side development. Just this year the US Coast Guard had commissioned the manufacture of its own very small autonomous vessel which was tested off the shores of Hawaii for coastline surveillance. “So even they are starting to dip their feet into the water in getting a test here!”
Port News has been covering developments in the autonomous field from various angles: portside, shipside, cybersecurity, drones taking payloads to ships. There seems to be a dichotomy between, on the one hand, serious efforts being made by shipping lines like NYK testing smart ship technology and ports like Rotterdam working with shipbuilders on shore-ship automation and, on the other, cyber-attacks getting increasingly sophisticated, targeting big players like Maerskand CMA. I asked Mr. Russo for his view on this. He explained that the cyber-security issue will be one of the larger issues in developing a real fleet of autonomous ships. “Once we start relying on computers to run ships or many ship-operations they are at much greater risk than they were from pirates anywhere.”
He stressed that, although the US Coastguard clearly recognizes the seriousness of the cyber-security issue, industry needs to do much more: “putting many more resources into protection against cyber-attacks … otherwise that technology may end up not being as robust as it could be.. That’s the real test.”
In the midst of an increasingly depressing current COVID scenario, David Russo took a more optimistic standpoint. He explained that that there had been a number of sector articles suggesting that COVID- style situations provided a good reason for having autonomous ships or at least ships with less crew. “It does point to the fact that whenever you have lots of people in a small environment you have various risks and I think that’s one reason why autonomous ships have start to captivate people’s imagination.”
What does the future hold? Mr Russo’s view is very much in line with what we are already seeing in ports like Hamburg. Automation, in the long run, will negatively impact traditional seafaring jobs. On the other hand, workers with hi-tech skills will become increasingly valuable to industry and its operations. “I don’t think that the fully autonomous ship carrying oil or grain is in the near future. Ships that are heavily operated by shoreside computers will be more the norm with less need for full crews and with more computer back up. So, we’ll see a gradual trend towards this kind of operation. I don’t think it will come quickly”.