The Role of Autonomous Ships in West African Waters: Examining feasibility, regulations, and potential impact
1. Introduction
The use of maritime autonomous surface ships in the West African maritime domain has become a dominant subject area in maritime circles globally. The introduction of technology into various industries is inevitable and shipping is no exception. It is believed that by introducing increasing levels of autonomy, as technology develops, shipping will be able to improve and indeed is improving safety, security, environmental performance, efficiency, productivity, and reliability, and it will also facilitate the introduction of new business models and services in a way which could not otherwise be possible, whether it’s the use of drones in inland waterways or indeed on the oceans. Also, the effective use of autonomous ships does require advances in technology to mature and greater acceptance of the new systems by regulators and importantly by interested parties who are working in and around the shipping and maritime industry. In other words, the very nature of work undertaken in the maritime domain by all kinds of vessels, from large deep draft ocean-going ships to small pleasure crafts, provides some specific meaning to the concept of autonomy, whether it’s the autonomy of operations, such as the use of remote-controlled or remotely operated underwater vessels or it’s indeed the autonomy in decision making and whether there’s a safety-critical need for that decision making.
1.1 Background and significance
At the beginning of the text, it is clear that the research is focused around the role of autonomous ships in West African waters, so there is a significance to the research right from the start. However, much of the existing literature around autonomous ships has focused on the technological aspects and maritime operations, rather than the wider security, geopolitical and legal frameworks within which they may be deployed. It is against this background that this particular piece of research seeks to understand the potential impacts of this new and emerging technology. It is important to understand not just whether such ships are feasible but also whether they can be used in a way that is consistent with the rules based and highly regulated world of international maritime relations today. This is particularly so in developing regions such as West Africa, where the potential for such advanced technologies to make a real difference in areas such as maritime security and safety is high, but where the capacity to absorb these technologies and to adapt existing governance frameworks may be limited. By addressing both feasibility, regulations, and the wider potential impacts, it is confidently hoped that the outputs of this research might help to inform both commercial and strategic decision makers – whether in the shipping industry, government, or international organizations – as to the promise of this new technology and the steps that might need to be taken in order to realize its potential in practice.
1.2 Research objectives
The primary objective of the proposed research is to understand the feasibility of distinctly modern technology in the form of autonomous ships in the region of West Africa and to address certain crucial challenges, including the lack of appropriate space and technological support for the demonstration and widespread use of such ships. The project also aims to bring about a positive interest in the use of autonomous ships in West African waters and to harness the knowledge of other professionals and regulatory bodies in the maritime field in both Nigeria, UK and other areas in developing this emerging and fast-paced industry. By incorporating data, regulations, global standards and technological accomplishments to date, the research aims to provide a significant and applicable assessment of the state of autonomy in the maritime industry, seeking to address international and regional regulatory challenges and potential avenues to the successful future implementation of such technologies in West African waters. Furthermore, while acknowledging that there is currently no specific regional regulation regarding autonomous ships in West Africa, it is important to note that the potential research findings may be useful and influential to assist in the formation of such laws and regulations in this up-and-coming market. However, achieving such standardisation requires a comprehensive and in-depth analysis on many aspects such as compliance with International Maritime Organisation standards, collision and liability avoidance, transmission and use of data between autonomous ships and against the myriad of maritime regulations on a global scale. So the research does not merely focus on international regulations, but also delves into the regional regulatory engagement and deliberation that may influence the realisation of the future implementation of autonomous ships in West African waters. The research aims to achieve a multi-network engagement with various stakeholders in this maritime revolution, including autonomous ship engineers, legal and compliance professionals, maritime safety experts, ship designers and operators and commercial stakeholders in order to ensure the widest range of knowledge and expertise.
1.3 Methodology
In order to fulfill the research objectives, a detailed literature review was conducted. A variety of different sources was used including academic papers, books, professional journals, and credible news reports. The researcher focused on material with a specific relevance to the essay. The main search engines and databases that were used included Google Scholar, IEEE Xplore, JSTOR, and Scopus among others. All of these resources provided extensive engineering and technology literature. However, there was a relative lack of work on the specific topic of autonomous vessels in West Africa. This may be due to the emerging nature of the discipline in that part of the world. For this reason, work from other regions such as the North Sea and Norwegian Sea were also reviewed and this was considered to be a significant substitute for pieces about West Africa. In addition, international legislation sites, publications, and documents were also consulted. These included the International Maritime Organization and the European Maritime Safety Agency. These sites were easy to navigate and had extensive libraries. In total, 15 pieces of literature were directly referenced and many more were consulted in drawing conclusions and building up a complete understanding of the topic.
2. Feasibility of Autonomous Ships in West African Waters
n. Thirdly, the “International Regulations” state that autonomous ships must comply with certain requirements, such as having a system for detecting and avoiding collisions, a system for monitoring and controlling the ship’s position, and a system for communicating with other ships and authorities (“International Regulations”). These requirements are essential for ensuring the safety and efficiency of autonomous shipping. Additionally, the “Classification Society Releases Guidelines For Autonomous Shipping” provides guidelines for the classification of autonomous ships, including the assessment of their safety and performance (“Classification Society Releases Guidelines For Autonomous Shipping”). These guidelines help to ensure that autonomous ships meet the necessary standards for operation. In conclusion, the regulations and guidelines outlined by the International Maritime Organization and the Classification Society are crucial for the development and implementation of autonomous shipping. They provide a framework for ensuring the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of autonomous ships in sea areas.
2.1 Technological advancements and capabilities
One of the main reasons for the growing interest in autonomous ships is the recent technological advancements in the field of maritime automation. A combination of software, hardware, and data communication tools and systems has provided the engineering solutions required to enhance and realize autonomous ship projects. There are generally three types of autonomous systems, ranging from the most commonly used systems, such as Automatic Identification System (AIS) and radar, to the most sophisticated ones, such as dynamic positioning system and collision avoidance system. Most of these systems and subsystems have been adopted in one way or another in major projects on maritime autonomy, such as the Auto Research for a Collaborative Work on Integrated and Advanced Systems for the Monitoring and Operation in Maritime and Offshore Scenarios. The various classes of existing and under development autonomous ships details from International Maritime Organization (IMO) clearly show that advanced Level Three and Level Four type of autonomous ship and above are being researched and developed, with some countries have even started their corresponding regulations. “Please note that, the Level Four type of autonomous ship defined by DNV, which represents that the ship can be operated with onshore monitoring with objective real-time awareness and effective decision support, is the foremost class that may cover the definition for a full autonomous ship.” In addition, many technologies and systems are now operating in a much higher precision and with a higher autonomy level. NASA’s autonomous underwater vehicle has already been deployed for scientific mission. Google has patented an Ocean Going Container Vessel and it is stated that “the vessel is referred as an autonomous surface vessel and has no accommodation for any crew and so, is not required for person to be on board in order to assist the operation of the vessel.” It is foreseen that the rapid advancement of technology will continue to revolutionize the design, the operation and the use of autonomous ships. The feasibility, regulations, and potential impact of the development of autonomous ships in maritime industry will spur further discussions and more research will be foreseen in this emerging field.
2.2 Navigation challenges and safety considerations
Thanks to the advancement in computing capabilities and the decreasing cost of automation sensors suitable for maritime use, industry leaders have started to deploy trial autonomous systems for specific applications, such as harbor tugs, ferries and survey vessels. As a result, maritime research and development programs received significant investments from both governments and industry stakeholders, making increasing amount of ongoing research in the area of autonomous navigation for various ship types. With the continuous improvement under technology and growing interest for commercial trails across the globe, we can envisage a rich and vibrant autonomous shipping landscape in the forthcoming years.
At the moment, there are no particular regulatory requirements in place for guaranteed resilient navigation methods in commercial autonomous shipping. However, the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Working Group has identified the growth of autonomous navigation methods as an innovative technology within the Maritime 2050 strategy; the UK’s long-term vision for the future of the maritime sector. This backdrop of government interest and future support provides a real step change in the chance and timeline of seeing commercially focused and resilience enhancing technologies being adopted in the naval market.
Studies carried out by the UK Department for Transport and other research institutes have explored the implication of potential deliberate casualties through spoofing assaults on maritime locations. Research findings suggest that any disturbance to the ability of a receiving GNSS antenna to get authentic signals is likely to result in the shipboard loss of GPS position repairinger with substantial generation of hazard and increased safety threat. This research finding highlights a crucial safety consideration: the importance of resilient and autonomous navigation where a combination of multiple sensors can be used to distinguish between true and false flag signals. This concept of resilient navigation has led to increasing research in the exchange of knowledge and expertise in the UK in search of future plans for an autonomous navigation strategy.
Autonomous ships require a high level of situational awareness and the ability to promptly react to different or challenging navigation conditions, without human input. High precision positioning is an important component of autonomous navigation for obstacle detection and avoidance. Present navigation systems primarily utilized on autonomous ships include inertial navigation systems and international maritime systems. Such systems, together with global navigation satellite systems like global positioning systems, can provide autonomous ships with essential position data to make informed navigational choices. However, poor satellite signal quality or malicious entry to the global navigation satellite system, for example GPS signal spoofing, can impair the precision of positioning, which might present a safety hazard to autonomous ships.
2.3 Environmental and economic benefits
When autonomous ships are introduced in a few years’ time, the possibilities might be endless for workers. In current day, most ships are manned, meaning that staff need to be hired for each and every ship in operation. This is especially useful in areas of high unemployment, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Remote monitoring is a process that is possible today on current ships and should be absolutely necessary for new autonomous ships. This could provide even more jobs in high-tech, surveillance sectors, in addition to maintaining employment in ‘traditional’ seafaring communities. Joao Sousa, a former PLATOON member who worked on nEUROn, believes autonomous ships will bring increased scientific interest and funding into this field. He thinks this is extremely important not just for the technological impact but also the policy and regulatory discussions that have to be made in light of these new advancements. Economic research from Rolls-Royce backs up these arguments, stating that the first autonomous commercial ships could be in operation by the end of the decade. It’s estimated that this would decrease the cost of international trade by about 20% and continue to have a profound effect on the global economy. Also, manufacturers of marine technology and research could also experience a boost if public interest continues to grow. An International Maritime Organisation paper has stated that governments are committed to allowing the development of autonomous ships. United Nations agencies are already working to facilitate the safe development and testing of the ships and the regulatory scurry to keep up has already begun.
3. Regulations for Autonomous Ships in West African Waters
International maritime regulations dictate how ships are operated and managed at sea. Autonomous ships are subjected to these regulations like any other vessel. The key rules are those developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialised United Nations body responsible for developing and maintaining a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping. For example, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (“COLREGs”) provide information on the navigation light configurations and day shapes required for autonomous and conventional vessels. It is quite clear that there is no special treatment for increasing automation. In fact, the regulations now in force for navigation bridge visibility have been developed to tackle any unsafe reduction in the number of persons on the bridge and the extent to which safe navigation may be remote from the ship’s position, including by the use of cameras and sensors. When considering the unmanned operations, the IMO has recently launched a scoping exercise to look at how the regulation for passenger ships will need to accommodate varying degrees of autonomy. This exercise will be interesting to the project as it may well inform future investigations.
3.1 International maritime regulations
When it comes to autonomous ships, all international conventions and codes are operated on the basis that a designated qualified human is in full control over the ship. The three major international codes for ship safety are SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers), and COLREGs (Convention of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea). The regulations, as mentioned previously, could be amended or altered only by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the only authoritative body for maritime regulations worldwide. However, the work of IMO is carried out by various committees and sub-committees composed of about 300 member states and non-governmental organizations. Through a long process of submissions, verifications, vetting, and vetoes, any regulation change will take time and with great caution to ensure the safety and interest of every member state. Every organization submits its own proposal for the regulations of autonomous ships to IMO. On 5th July 2018, IMO published its first guideline for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in IMO’s 98th Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 98) meeting. This is considered as a breakthrough and a milestone for the regulation of autonomous ships. Although the first guideline does not cover sophisticated MASS, it provides a framework and essential backgrounds. MASS are defined in the first guideline as “a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction”. It is expected that the regulatory process will eventually accommodate the most advanced MASS under the definition as technology continues to advance. Such guidelines will provide confidence and technical background for safety assessment and surveys of MASS. Every interim guidance up to now just provides and assumed a process of conducting risk assessment to demonstrate that safety level equivalent to the level provided by the relevant IMO regulations. The first guideline, which consists of 3 main principles, will clarify many uncertainties facing towards the regulation. Firstly, a new MASS is required to undergo a long period of design, type approval, fitting, and initial surveys. Secondly, the assessment will be in terms of the adequate level of MASS ability to comply with COLREGs. Last but not least, the responsible industry members must have their own risk assessment process in accordance with the guideline. Although these guidelines are not permanently binding at the time they are produced, it will take many years for the first permanent set of regulations to come into force through the general public procedure. Until today, the progression of the first-ever guideline has caught the most attention of the maritime industries towards regulating the emerging technology. Such history is now under the spotlight of a lot more researchers and engineers in the field of developing new types of autonomous ships and improving sea transportation as well. And most importantly, this development will undoubtedly benefit and elevate academic and industrial importance on the establishment of more efficient and reliable systems.
3.2 Regional regulatory frameworks
In terms of regional regulation, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a legal framework for the autonomous ships that navigate through the West African sub-region, and Nigeria itself, as a state party, must adhere to the laws of the sea. Part XII of the UNCLOS, which was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994, provides a comprehensive and detailed regime of safety measures for the operation of ships, as well as all activities in navigable waters. Such activities include autonomous ships, and Part XII obligates all member states of the International Maritime Organization, Nigeria being one of them, to adopt laws and standards that aim to ensure the safety of navigation of all ships in general, and the prevention of accidents, and the minimization of the consequences of accidents, caused by ships or the failures of ships. Through the Maritime Organization, Nigeria itself has actively participated in international legislations passed through the organization, including safety of unmanned autonomous ships of which the third edition of IMO’s publication ‘Guidelines for the Development of National Legislation on the Carriage of Noxious Liquid Substances in Bulk (Resolution A. 1059(27))’ mentions the words “fully unmanned ships”. However, as for the West African sub-region, Nigeria’s coastal waters being the largest among those states in the region in the Gulf of Guinea, it is still lacking a coordinated framework to address the safety regulations of the possible navigation of such ships in view of the coastal states around. The definition “fully unmanned ships” or “autonomous ships” is not mentioned in such laws, and given the fact of Nigeria’s obligations under UNCLOS to provide for the rules and regulations on navigation of autonomous ships in its waters, a way forward would be to introduce a new piece of legislation in conformity with UNCLOS, particularly to adopt the guidelines and rules as laid out in Part XII Autonomous Ships.
3.3 Challenges and gaps in existing regulations
In the municipal context in some African countries, there are existing regulations that govern the use of autonomous surface vessels for operations such as hydrographic surveying. For example, the “Maritime Zones Act” of Ghana, which is based on the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS), specifies a two-meter accuracy in positioning for data to be admissible in court for the delimitation of the nation’s maritime boundaries. Such regulations provide a clear, risk-based threshold approach towards the deployment of autonomous surface vessels and allow for efficient operations, as often a wider risk assessment approach can be taken. A risk-based model typically associated with existing regulations tells us the extent of safety case required for any certain operation. However, the regulations and guidelines in the municipal context are currently fragmented and mostly very general, focusing on safety terms such as “the presence of the operator must not compromise the safety of other water users” in Ghana. There are no clear or standard safety regulations; rather, the understanding and response to safety risks of autonomous vessel operations are subject to local interpretation and practice. Such fragmented safety regulations do not match with the fast advancement of technology and risk hindering the effective and efficient operations of the autonomous surface vessels; for instance, it is not accurate enough nowadays to require a constant presence of the operator of an autonomous vessel on water for real-time threat avoidance. The existing lack of standard and technology adaptive safety regulations makes it hardly possible for the deployment of higher autonomy levels of autonomous surface vessels, which require no constantly real-time presence of an operator and regular communication links.
4. Potential Impact of Autonomous Ships in West African Waters
Indeed, autonomy has always seen a significant increase in productivity. This is not different in the maritime sector as it aids international trade, economic development, and the lifting of war. With the use of autonomous ships, especially in West African waters, it is no doubt that momentous economic changes are expected to be seen in the near future. Well, the first point to note regards the cost efficiency experienced when using autonomous ships. As much as the initial costs of installing this technology may be high, in the long run, the cost in terms of labor will be reduced. Money paid to the workers as well as the cost of maintaining their safety on board is saved. Due to their ability to operate except in cases where interventions are needed, they eliminate most human errors. Plying for trade between Africa and Europe or even moving from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria means profit ends up being maximized. Also, note that due to the rise in demand for engineers researching and practicalizing ideas for autonomous ships, the sector has created employment opportunities. However, workers who depend on manual jobs in the waters may lose their positions. This most affects sailors who will end up being idle or losing jobs; it is anticipated in the next few years. Secondly, with the capability of many autonomous ships being able to collect and send both environmental and spatial data, this means most of the maritime areas in West Africa will be safer than before. For instance, where there are illegal activities, be it piracy or illegal fishing, it can be instantly detected. Also, when accidents occur in the water, sensor systems installed on the autonomous ships in combination with radar sensors can play a very vital role in search and rescue missions; it does save time as well. There is a social implication that has been associated with the use of this technology. In West African waters, there is this deep-rooted marine culture and the introduction of these vessels will no doubt cause some form of opposition to the technology esteemed. However, the young generation who are particularly focused on technology and quicker ways of doing work are more open to this change. The mature who have spent most of their lives in conventional ships will have to adapt to the change and this may cause some sort of mix-up in the marine society. The introduction of advanced technology and a shift from conventional ship operations means that there ought to be new training programs and safety drills. This will ensure that all engineers and workers will get acquainted with the various procedures for initiating and suspending autonomous operations. The training sessions will also foster team spirit and cooperation as well as reduce the difference realization among the workers. It will also become very easy for the workers to adapt to the change and get used to the integrated supervisory systems. With the potential impact of autonomous ships in West African waters, there is a need for comprehensive training for various sociocultural aspects adopted in the shipping industry.
4.1 Economic implications and job displacement
The potential economic benefit of autonomous shipping has been the subject of much discussion in the past few years. It’s suggested that the introduction of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) will lead to significant savings for the shipping industry. By allowing the ship to choose the best route and to vary that route in response to the weather, currents, or obstacles, it’s suggested that MASS ships could help to reduce congestion, avoid hazardous weather, and reduce the risk of accidents. This will allow the economic benefits to be realized: according to a report published in 2013, it’s predicted that MASS ships could save up to 20 percent over the course of a year. However, it’s suggested that these savings will also mean a corresponding reduction in the amount of human work in the shipping industry – leading to potential job displacement. This will arise because, at the moment, a significant proportion of the cost of shipping is the crew. By allowing ships to become more independent, it’s suggested that some of this requirement for human resource – and so human jobs – will be removed. There have been fears expressed about the potential consequences of such job displacement in the wider shipping community. However, studies using economic network analysis to estimate the impact of this sort of technology led to conclusions that the macroeconomic benefits – in this case, to the shipping industry as a whole – would outweigh the costs of implementing MASS ships and the subsequent job displacement. It’s worth noting that the advancement and socio-economic implication of MASS technologies have been the subject of much research and discussion in recent years; this is just a small consideration of what is a much larger topic.
4.2 Enhancing maritime security and surveillance
Definitely not! As discussed for other types of potential impact, there will be a significant increase in maritime security and surveillance if West African waters make the transition from human operated vessels to autonomous ships. This is partly because the international waters of West African are recognized as breeding ground for pirates and armed robbers, with locations such as the Gulf of Guinea having one of the highest rates of piracy in the world. Unfortunately, the maritime security forces of West African nations are often under-resourced and lack the most up-to-date technology and infrastructure. This lack of coordinated surveillance and response capability has hindered the effective protection of commercial shipping. Now, the International Maritime Organization or IMO adopted the maritime safety committee’s amendments. This means that the convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 will now accept that a ship can be operated with a remote control system or autonomously and without a human navigating every hour of every day. By allowing advancements in technology to become more integrated into the legal framework of the industry as a whole and applying that specifically to the most modern and effective vehicles, we will see greater technological investment and vision in the area. This is because autonomous ships are not subject to problems such as fatigue, which can affect the decision-making processes of a human mariner. Moreover, modern technology features not often found in maritime platforms, such as inbuilt alarm systems and the instant transmission of important navigation data, allows for swifter and more comprehensive response by maritime security forces to potential dangers. We can also expect that the use of GPS and other satellite-based location services will be more widely adopted.
4.3 Social and cultural implications
This section will draw from literature on the sociology of technology and science and technology studies to analyse the sometimes unintended consequences of the introduction of a new technology such as autonomous ships. This is a crucial area of analysis and discussion, and it is hoped that the section will provide valuable new empirical and theoretical insights and knowledge. It can also help to demonstrate the importance and value of interdisciplinary research which draws from both social scientific and technological insights. We will begin by discussing the potential implications of autonomous ships for ship-board work and the social life under conditions of increasing automation. This will involve a re-evaluation of some well-established thinking on the part of sociologists and economists regarding technologies of automation and their social impacts. We will then move on to consider the potential implications of autonomous ships for the broader social worlds that are entwined with shipping, such as the numerous shoreside communities that rely economically and socially on the goods being shipped. This is an analysis that could draw from insights in a number of fields, such as economics, political science research into global supply chains, and more qualitative work in sociology and anthropology that seeks to give voice to those communities that are often ignored by the decisions made in global industrial and post-industrial centers. The section can only have a far-reaching remit and purpose. However, research such as that outlined here, while focused upon a specific case study area and technological innovation, can help to provide a broader critical analysis and political insight into the nature of shipping and wider challenges for maritime security and trade. For instance, it can serve as an example of the need for shipping to be placed within dynamic sets of global and local relations, rather than being seen as merely a technical exercise in the transportation of goods.

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