Shipping: Removing the Human Factor

Shipping: Removing the Human Factor

The idea of an unmanned cargo ship, offering numerous advantages in terms of efficiency and safety, must be tantalising to many shipping companies. If in the future this were to happen, it would mean the removal of the human factor which causes a large number of incidents. However, firefighting on these vessels presents unique challenges, both at sea and in port.

The international maritime organisation (imo) created the international convention for the safety of life at sea, otherwise known as solas, which makes many provisions to ensure the safety of those working and travelling on the world’s oceans. Under solas the imo has a set of international treaties called the international code for fire safety systems (fss), these are both regularly updated, especially when there are updates to technology, or lessons learnt from incidents. For example, in 2006, a balcony fire caused by a stray cigarette aboard the cruise ship star princess, lead to the death of a passenger and consequently, amendments in solas meaning that all passenger ships shall have sprinkler systems on balconies, as well as numerous changes regarding containment, detection, alarm and avoidable sources of ignition. The fire itself, as with all fires at sea was attended by the onboard ship’s company, the majority of whom are trained in fighting fires, and are the only group of people available to call on in an emergency – even if they are extinguished by sprinklers or the injection of chemicals into the vicinity of the fire. Automated shipping has been talked of in the seafaring community for a number of years, and while the technology behind completely unmanned, self-driving ships is still being developed, vessel control systems and digital technology are close to making it a reality. Currently smaller vessels can be deployed from a mother ship, such as small auv (autonomous underwater vehicles) and rov (remote operated vehicles) can be operated autonomously or remotely from a remote control centre (rcc), often far out at sea with a connection to a mother ship. While a fire onboard these small vessels pose little risk to life, their loss by any means has a financial impact for the owners, and an environmental impact too. But what happens when the technology evolves to the point where it can be applied to large cargo ships, or even passenger vessels? How do we protect lives and assets from fire at sea and in port if a large vessel is unmanned?

Vessels which operate without a constant human presence, make timely fire detection and response a critical concern. Traditional firefighting methods rely on crew members’ observation and immediate response to extinguish fires. In the absence of crew, delays in fire detection and response can lead to increased fire spread and potentially catastrophic consequences.

Addressing the lack of available human intervention can take numerous forms. The availability of cctv systems which can detect motion is helpful here, they can also be used to identify fire and used in addition to traditional heat and smoke detectors onboard. These images can then be relayed to an rcc ashore or on a mother ship, where operators can make appropriate decisions regarding fire suppression in the area in real time.

As previously mentioned, all fires onboard a ship are normally attended by the onboard team, but if there is no team onboard, other methods of suppression will need to be relied upon. We’ve seen the effectiveness of sprinklers in buildings on land, and sprinklers systems are already compulsory at sea and solas set out very comprehensive guidelines regarding how these should be set up. It also makes other forms of fixed suppression such as co2 injection into engine rooms compulsory too. A large part of the problem when fighting fires in spaces such as engine rooms and incinerator rooms is that there are people working in them. Once the human factor is removed, things could potentially become much simpler. First of all, there is nobody aboard to make a mistake which starts a fire, so the causes are reduced to a component failure, or a flaw with the design of the system or similar. If a fire does occur, there is no longer a wait to clear the area before it is injected with co2 or foam to extinguish the fire. This means that even if the decision is made remotely to operate the fire suppression system, there is a much quicker response time, so the fire should be smaller and easier to supress. All ships have fire compartments, the doors of which automatically shut when the system detects a fire, making containment and suppression much easier; on unmanned ships once these have been closed there is nobody there to open them and risk increasing fire spread; once again making it easier to smother the fire with a combination of ventilation shut off and either automated sprinklers or chemical injection.

There are some areas and types of fire where this technique isn’t applicable though. In 2023 the car carrying cargo ship Felicity Ace sank in the atlantic ocean following a fire which burned for two weeks. The crew could not tackle it and had to abandon ship, and while the cause of the fire will never be known for sure, there is speculation that a fault in the lithium ion battery of one of the electric vehicles could be to blame.

Firefighting techniques for such cargo as lithium ion batteries – in cars or otherwise – are still being developed. They take a lot more water to put out than other fires, and there is high risk of re-ignition too. They also burn at a very intense heat, meaning the fire spreads quickly to other fuel sources including other lithium ion batteries in the area starting the cycle of thermal runaway again.

Generally, and especially with cars, the best idea is to smother the fire, this can be done with a specialist fire blanket, but water is the preferred method of extinguishing these fires, due to its cooling effect, but with it taking so much water to put out these fires, this could cause problems with the ships stability if the run off cannot escape effectively.

As with all fires, prevention is better than cure, and best practice standards, such as ensuring cars have a low battery charge before being stowed on board, and good housekeeping regarding what these batteries are stored near are being constantly revised. As the car industry’s global expansion of electric vehicles continues, it could be that developments in firefighting this relatively new risk could go hand in hand with how t aoutomate firefighting on ships, especially as some shipping lines refuse to carry them, even with crew onboard to respond to an incident.

Other new technologies and further development in automation could also help in the suppression of fires on unmanned vessels. The effectiveness of using drones in fire prevention and firefighting is already proven, and while flying in a confined space onboard a moving ship while carrying a payload to extinguish a fire is unrealistic and unnecessary with other fixed firefighting equipment available, it’s possible that the technology for controlling it could be used to control a system which could be extended into hard to reach spaces on container decks, where sprinklers and injection systems aren’t suitable. There are already specialist systems for fighting fires in shipping containers, such as hydro-pen, which in the future could be further developed to be controlled remotely to reach the location of a fire and attach itself to the affected container, rather than needing a person present to operate it.

There is another situation to consider regarding fire on ships, which is a fire in port. Regardless of whether a ship is lean manned or unmanned, when coming into port pilots will be needed on board to bring the ship into port. The IMO again have regulations pertaining to minimum safe manning in port, meaning that all ships in port must have enough crew onboard to ensure the ship’s safety. In port, there are added risks, such as refuelling and the loading of cargo to take into consideration, and it could be that while ships are left unmanned and automated or under the control of an rcc while at sea, a minimum complement of crew are sent to join the ship for pilotage into port and to stay onboard until after it’s departure, not just to respond to incidents, but to ensure the loading of the ship took place safely. If a fire were to happen in port, it’s not a given that the local fire brigade would go onboard the ship and fight the fire, but as with large buildings, all ships have fire plans at every gangway available in the event that assistance was needed from ashore.

The future of automated shipping is still being developed and decided on, clearly there are risks which are different to those presented by manned ships. Whatever the future holds for it, there is clearly room for significant development with regards to firefighting procedures onboard, some of which could be applied to conventional shipping to help protect not just cargo, but lives at sea.