AUTONOMOUS VESSELSAutonomous Vessels Need to Be More Afraid of Dying

By Live Oftedahl

Published 8 June 2024

Could the Helge Ingstad maritime accident have been avoided if the Royal Norwegian Navy’s warships had been equipped with artificial intelligence?

8 November 2018 at 0400 hours: The frigate KNM Helge Ingstad is heading south in the clear winter darkness in Hjelteforden northwest of Bergen.

It is heading towards Scotland after a major NATO exercise in Trøndelag County. The warship, with 137 people on board, does not emit AIS signals (automatic identification system), but other ships in the fjord can see it on their radar.

At 0401 hours, the 133-metre-long frigate crashes with the 250-metre-long tanker TS Sola. The tanker is heading towards England loaded with crude oil.

The collision tears open an almost 50-metre-long hole along the starboard side of Helge Ingstad.

Manually Controlled by Humans
Sleeping sailors are abruptly woken in their cabins where ice-cold seawater starts to pour in and electric wires and other cables stick out everywhere. Luckily, everyone is evacuated, no lives are lost, and only seven people on board are injured.

The tanker has only received a few scratches, and an environmental disaster has been avoided.

The morning news that day played the audio log from the incident. How was it possible not to spot a 250-metre-long tanker on a collision course?

There are many complex reasons why the accident occurred, but would the same have happened if Helge Ingstad had been equipped with higher levels of autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI)?

Opinions vary.

AI Can Reduce Possible Accidents
Ingrid Bouwer Utne is professor of Marine Safety and Risk at NTNU’s Department of Marine Technology. She conducts research on the development of safer and more intelligent autonomous systems – for shipping, underwater robotics and flying drones. Utne’s research is organized under the Fjord Laboratory section of the Norwegian Ocean Technology Centre.

Utne believes that more AI in the maritime sector could have contributed to a better understanding of the maritime accident, both on the bridge of Helge Ingstad and at the Fedje Vessel Traffic Service Centre, which monitors and regulates vessel traffic in the area.

“Neither the outgoing nor the incoming officer of the watch on board Helge Ingstad understood that TS Sola was a tanker. And the operator at Fedje forgot to plot the course of Helge Ingstad when the ship arrived at what is called the precautionary area,” says Utne.

She thinks that these are examples of where better decision support could have reduced the likelihood of these kinds of misunderstandings and oversights, even if AI and autonomous systems alone are not adequate risk mitigation measures.