The Marine Robotics workforce of the future: bridging the training, skills and regulatory gap

Huw Gullick challenges the need for diversification and regulation in skills of the marine science workforce

Posted 18th January 2023|4 minute read

Reskilling is essential for ensuring a smooth transition to marine autonomy.

Technological advances are driving forward automation and we expect to see the driverless car on our roads in the not too distant future. However, we are more likely to see driverless vehicles operating in our ocean years before the driverless car becomes a common sight.

The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is home to the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) fleet, one of the largest and most advanced in the world, having benefited from a £10 million investment as part of the UK Government’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ initiative, and £16 million from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

In our rush to adopt autonomous vehicles, are we failing to upskill our marine workforce to ensure safe operation?

Marine autonomy is helping to scale ocean science and undertake ocean observations in deeper seas, hard to reach regions whilst reducing our dependence on support ships. This in turn will help cut our carbon emissions and drive our ambitious net-zero targets.

With a switch towards autonomy comes the concern that jobs in the marine industry will be lost. However, with the workforce of engineers and technologists who develop, maintain and operate these high-tech robots integral to their success, this isn’t the case. In reality, it means that new skills are entering and diversifying the marine labour market, presenting challenges, including the need for robust regulation and training.

A change towards Remote Operation Centres (ROC) will require engineers and technologists to have additional specialist training essential for ensuring expert knowledge of the equipment they are operating and the environment that they are working the equipment. The latter also presents a further opportunity for those who previously overlooked a career in marine science due to the need to spend time away at sea.

Whilst MAS will always need technologists and engineers, due to the increased use of machine learning and artificial intelligence in machine development, the need for software engineers and computer scientists has never been greater. Attracting delegates with the right skills provides a further challenge for the marine industry as it competes with industries traditionally perceived as more glamorous or financially rewarding. National and international organisations such as the NOC highlighting the unique role they play in the future of our planet, from both an environmental and economic perspective, may play a pivotal role in competing in these markets.

Developing recognised national and international standards

Compared with modern shipping and operations, marine autonomy is still in its infancy, so it is not surprising to see those equivalent standards, skills and regulations for working in this industry are only just emerging. We, therefore, face a concerning scenario whereby technology will outpace our ability to operate marine autonomous and robotic systems safely.

To match and exceed the capabilities of the technology, it is now necessary to expedient standards and regulations. To achieve this, regulatory bodies, industry operators and training providers must work hand in hand to agree on a sensible and scalable approach to standards and training and deliver programmes that accelerate regulation.

There have already been positive steps forward in this area, for example, the MASRWG, the MCA / DfT led MARlab project hosted by the NOC, that engaged industry partners with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Assuring Autonomy Programme. Progress bought by the funding given to MarRI-UK for Smart Maritime Land Operations should see regulators, academia and industry working together to deliver the technologies in consultation with the regulatory stakeholders.

Filling the skills gap and developing a recognised training programme

As with regulation of marine autonomy, the pace of adapting maritime training for operating and maintaining autonomous equipment needs to match that of physical technology development. This is about diversifying the skill in the marine science workforce, not replacing traditional maritime skills and training, but rather augmenting or adding to the toolbox and empowering people to have the skills to perform both.

With the standards for training and skills in marine autonomy still emerging, those seeking to pursue a career in this field will find it a challenging environment to navigate. There has been significant progress in this area in recent times. For example, the NOC recently signed an MoU with SeaBot XR and the Royal Navy to create a National Centre of Excellence for Marine Operations that will deliver apprenticeships and the skills required for the operation of MAS. It is also encouraging to see universities such as the University of Plymouth offering professional qualifications that include an MSc in Autonomous Systems.

Whilst this demonstrates that we are heading in the right direction, there is work to be done. In conjunction with the regulatory landscape, the development of marine autonomy skills must come from the equipment operators working with the educators at all levels, including schools, further education, higher education and occupational trainers. Organisations such as the NOC, who already have the relevant infrastructure and skills in marine autonomy, also have a leading role in this collaborative effort to develop the UK national capability for autonomous equipment and training. Stakeholders will need to recognise that we will have to build confidence in the technology to loosen the rein on the regulations as we develop and test the technology, as we don’t have the years of time-tested knowledge and study as we do with traditional marine operations.

Reskilling for a net-zero economy

It is also essential to look at the reskilling of the marine workforce in the context of working towards a net-zero economy. Whilst MAS is not entirely free of carbon emissions, it will provide a significant reduction in both carbon and costs bringing both environmental and economic benefits. For example, there is an ambition to map the global seabed by 2030. Undertaking this project using conventional surveying methods would cost over £6 billion and result in 6 million tonnes of carbon emissions. The same survey done with MAS would cost just £1 billion and result in 0.5 million tonnes of carbon.

Marine autonomy is broader than just technology that reduces our dependence on support ships, it is about how the global marine industry transitions to the new world in a safe and consistent manner. And combining the specific autonomy qualifications and skill set in a standardised way is going to be of great significance.

About the author

Huw Gullick

Huw Gullick

Managing Director

Huw’s spent over 15 years working in some of the world’s most respected technology and engineering organisations. With a technical background in aero-engines and materials engineering, he’s responsible for the overall leadership of NOC Innovations, and is a member of the executive team at the National Oceanography Centre.

Marine autonomy is helping to scale ocean science and undertake ocean observations in deeper seas, hard to reach regions whilst reducing our dependence on support ships. This in turn will help cut our carbon emissions and drive our ambitious net-zero targets.

Huw Gullick

Associate Director NOC Innovations