Autonomy makes the human role more important

Autonomy makes the human role more important

Written by Frode Halvorsen – Ocean Autonomy Cluster

Norway is in the driver’s seat in the development of autonomous ocean space technology. Period. This position also reveals several new challenges and issues; thus, we have an advantage in solving these.

Autonomous vessels will help move coastal freight transport from land to water, make it profitable, and thus solve several challenges. It is still a while until we are there. Still, it is not necessarily due to immature technology but somewhat undefined regulations, uncertainty among customers, and the need for new business models.

To draw an analogy to the world of elevators: In 1945, a strike among elevator operators in New York led to the halting of much of Manhattan’s business. Due to the strike, there was a significant loss because workers did not get to work, and the postal service stopped. People simply could not bear to go up the stairs to the offices in the skyscrapers. This episode helped accelerate the development of unmanned lifts. And probably none of us react to the fact that there is no operator in the elevator today. Nor does it mean that we should or can remove the human from the operation; on the contrary, there will be an opportunity to move and improve the operations and work. The result must be a safer operation, both for the operators and for those around them.

Before Christmas, the Research Council announced the new “ Kapasitetsløft,” one of which is MIDAS – The Human in the Ocean Space Operations of the Future. Over the next six years, MIDAS will bring together and promote interdisciplinary environments that are important for developing and commercializing autonomous ocean space technology. The capacity increase MIDAS is aimed at the entire value chain within autonomous ocean space technology, from research to commercialization, and the role of humans in autonomy. It is a solid team consisting of R&D actors such as NTNU and Sintef, industrial actors such as DNV, and a wide range of technology industry actors through the Ocean Autonomy Cluster.

The paradox

An increasing degree of autonomy, and digitalization in general, require increasingly complex systems to talk to each other, which requires a higher-level system design. At the same time, there is too little focus on the human factors in the same systems. Increasing degrees of autonomy and automatic systems do not make the human role less essential but, on the contrary, more important. This is known as the automation paradox.

The automation paradox creates challenges for developers and suppliers of advanced autonomous systems, especially when the plans are remotely controlled and monitored. Therefore, design plays an essential role in developing excellent and intuitive human-machine interfaces. This will, for example, be important in situations where the person/machine must decide on whether the operator should take control of the vessel. Technology alone cannot solve such an interface but needs interdisciplinary expertise, including psychology, operational experience, and design. It is these interdisciplinary competencies that Midas will bring together to increase the capacity and competence of a new industry.

Extreme sports

Developing products or services without legislation or adaptation, standards, undefined customers, and an established market is the extreme sports version of business development. This requires new design processes, business models, and development methods in general. Fortunately, Norway is well accustomed to digitalization, and the Norwegian Maritime Directorate is a good supporter of the road to autonomous vessels. Therefore, everything should be in place for Norway to pave the way and create best practices for other markets. It does not help much if a ship can go unmanned from Brønnøysund if someone has to row out to receive the same ship in Hamburg. Common and compatible regulations, protocols, and systems are thus crucial for making autonomous and uncrewed operations profitable, thus achieving the effect and solving the challenges that are made possible with the technology.

The market

Even if the market is immature today, it does not mean that it will be like that forever. DNV’s “Ocean`s future to 2050” points to a race for ocean space and strong growth in the use of ocean space; Among other things, it is pointed out that 368,000 km² of the sea surface will be in use of infrastructure in 2050, compared with 40,000 km² in 2018, where the largest growth is in offshore wind. It is difficult to imagine that 10x growth in area can be operated manually, so in this case, we believe that autonomous systems and operations must be used to achieve profitability. With our experiences from oil & gas and aquaculture, combined with a culture and acceptance of digitalization, it should be possible for Norwegian players to take a large part of this cake.

Design for trust

Even with the world’s best regulations in place and analyses that point to a significant increase in efficiency and profitability, it does not help much if there is no trust in the system. Trust will therefore be a key factor for a successful introduction of autonomy. Then it is important to remember all stakeholders; it is not just about the passenger of an autonomous ferry or the goods owner, but everyone who, in one way or another, is directly or indirectly affected. Even the recreational fisherman must have confidence that the autonomous vessel has seen the fishing line and will pass at a good distance; Trust can be defined as “an assumption about the future behavior of others that is safe enough to serve as a basis for practical action.” And it is precisely this assumption that is to be strengthened through design and the interaction between man and machine.


Norway has a long maritime and marine history and a strong international position, which means great export potential. MIDAS will contribute to strengthening the Norwegian business community’s ability to innovate, develop and export autonomous ocean space technology, especially by increasing capacity in the areas of design and business development.

Although Midas has a regional focus, the knowledge and capacity established in the project will be available and have a national significance. This is to ensure that Norway also sits in the driver’s seat in the development of autonomous ocean space technology in the years to come. All indications are that the ocean will become more important in the years to come, and they didn`t slow down the production of lifts, even though the lift operator was given new work tasks.

This article was first published in Skibsrevyen 3 2022 by the author in Norwegian

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