We have become used to machinery that appears to be cleverer than the people who are supposed to be in charge of it. We can turn on the central heating ten kilometres away from the house, while it is possible to buy a fridge that can order more food from the supermarket as you eat it. It is all clever software, of course, and it is getting more intelligent all the time.

As the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) reviews its work programme it is significant the member societies will be paying some attention to what has become known as “complex on board systems”. Increasingly, ships are becoming dependent on these complex systems, which are now permeating every department, with a good deal of interlinking and integration and very often involving significant safety impacts.

Propulsion systems, power systems, navigation and ship handling systems – all are becoming more sophisticated and need, it is suggested, a new type of officer who can fully understand them and who can intelligently intervene when things go wrong. In the design and operational departments, is everyone capable of grasping the implications of the equipment and components, the software and systems that are being incorporated into a ship? Often the solution of one problem will merely uncover another, if there is not a proper comprehension of what is happening.

It is the way of the future, of course, but it is important that these complex systems are sufficiently robust in every part, for their life aboard ship in a demanding marine environment. So it is encouraging that there is to be an IACS approach to this issue, which hopefully will lead to a more holistic approach to such systems, so that there is less risk of problems being magnified into emergency systems.

Many modern mariners will recognise some of the problems that arise. A passenger ship experiences an electrical problem which disables the vessel’s propulsion system and perhaps as important, renders the air conditioning and refrigeration systems inoperable, causing considerable discomfort for the several thousand people on board. A software problem on a semi-submersible causes the ballast systems to become uncontrollable, almost causing the loss of the rig. Systems linking the bridge control system with the steering and propeller pitch are made unreliable because of a software glitch in barely associated equipment. The integration of a whole range of navigation and collision avoidance functions are available for the watchkeeper, but without any “default” system which maintains a degree of functionality if the more sophisticated system “goes down”.

Possibly, one of the most important areas in this is the role of the human being, and a trained ability to recognise that something is going wrong, to analyse the situation and intervene accordingly. Will the system facilitate adequate human oversight? Will the human intervention be possible? Or will the complexity of the systems aboard defeat the humans?

Author: The Watchkeeper                    Source: BIMCO