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The Centre for Marine Sustainability is a leader in the creation, sharing, and application of insight, innovation, and knowledge for safe, sustainable seas. We take a systems approach to finding solutions to the global challenges facing our oceans. Our research is discovering clean alternatives to fossil fuels used in ships, investigating the impacts of marine pollution, and studying the safety of those working at sea.

The combination of Solent’s world leading expertise and capabilities in sustainability, engineering, maritime, and human factors provide a unique platform for collaboration to deliver global benefit to society and the environment.

Current opportunities

We offer research degrees with the Centre, where candidates will be working alongside our field-leading researchers. We look for outstanding applicants with excellent academic records who show potential for research at the highest level.

PhD Studentship: Development of an assurance framework for the Safety of Autonomous Ships: A Systems Engineering Approach

Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD studentship sponsored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and The UK Hydrographic Office.

The successful candidate will be hosted by the Centre for Marine Sustainability and will be part of our research team in the National Clean Maritime Research Hub (UK-MaRes). This national hub will foster close partnerships with a diverse range of collaborators, including shipping companies, ports, equipment and service providers, fuel producers, and civic bodies and will focus on cutting-edge research in vital areas such as sustainable marine fuels, low-carbon power, and propulsion systems for shipping, decarbonised port operations and infrastructure, enhanced maritime operations, and improved vessel efficiency.

The shipping industry is undergoing a transformation as advancements in digitisation and technology have accelerated the adoption of autonomous ships, also known as Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). These ships use artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies to perform tasks that would normally be carried out by a crew, such as navigation, communications, and maintenance. While the use of autonomous ships has the potential to improve efficiency and reduce costs, there are several assurance challenges, particularly in terms of their ability to safely navigate and dynamically respond to changing conditions.

These vessels are equipped with highly advanced intelligent and adaptable capabilities, and a wide range of sensor technology to provide situational awareness. A key concern for autonomous and remote vessels is the operation in shared navigational situations with ‘traditional’ crewed vessels. There are several safety and reliability assurance challenges emerging from the complex, adaptive, and non-deterministic nature of the AI/ML technologies employed in these vessels. Of these challenges one of the biggest is in assurance, trust, and acceptance. The key requirement throughout is that MASS should at least be as safe as conventional ships.

Current research and regulatory discussion to achieve this assurance commonly considers risk-based approaches. These risk approaches do however have shortcomings – the limited availability of empirical data; limited system interactions in simulated models; and the viewing of safety as a variable to quantify, rather than a feature to be controlled. The discussion to define and effectively assure the safety of such vessels therefore remains open.

This project proposes to develop a comprehensive system engineering approach for assessing the safety of autonomous ships. This approach will consider the challenges associated with autonomous navigation and decision making, as well as the ethical considerations of equivalency to safe operation by a human counterpart. The results will be applied to provide an initial framework to assist assurance testing of IMO degree 4 MASS by non-specialists. Specifically, the project will address the following objectives:

  1. Establish through systematic review the state of assurance regimes, existing or proposed, and literature pertaining to autonomous vehicles and its applicability to the Maritime domain.
  2. Identify and evaluate the navigational and operational data requirements for the operation of Degree 4 MASS.
  3. Evaluate how the “navigational situational image” can be inspected within the Flag/Coastal/Port state framework, and how this information can be interpreted and applied for assurance purposes.
  4. Evaluate and propose acceptable thresholds and an outline framework for safety assurance for the operation of Degree 4 MASS in shared navigational situations.


  • Primary Supervisor: Dr Laurie Wright Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Marine Sustainability, Warsash Maritime School.
  • Second Supervisor: Dr Marc Molinari, Lead Computer Scientist, Department of Science and Engineering.
  • Industry Advisor: Mike Bunton, Maritime and Coastguard Agency
  • Industry Advisor: Mark Casey, UK Hydrographic Office

Prospective student

The successful candidate should have a first degree in computer science, mechanical engineering, marine engineering or related discipline. Previous experience of working with autonomous systems, AI, ML, or related topics particularly in relation to transportation would be valuable. Whilst experience and knowledge of the maritime industry is beneficial but not essential; an interest in the maritime sector and willingness to learn is important.

We particularly encourage those from minority backgrounds and/or lower participation areas to apply.

Applicants must be either a British National, a British Citizen as defined by the British Nationality Act 1981, a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. A review of nationality and residency requirements may be conducted prior to an offer being made for security reasons.

The PhD student will spend each year at Solent University, with a particular focus on data collection in year two. The student will spend periods of their study working within the respective sponsoring industry organisations. The respective student will be enrolled in the PhD in Engineering and PGCert in Research Methods programmes at Solent University. Supervision will provide by Solent University with advisory input from the Maritime Coastguard Agency.

Making an application

Applications should be made here, indicating that you are applying for this, by Friday 30 June 2023. Your complete application should include a CV and research proposal (2,000-4,000 words) outlining how you wish to address this topic (including proposed research questions, methodology and expected outcomes).

If you have questions or wish to discuss your idea before making an application, please contact Dr Laurie Wright ( Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Marine Sustainability.

Apply now

Tuition fees and funding

The studentship will be funded for three years, with an annual stipend of £20,000 (rising by 10% per year) for three years. Annual tuition fees will be paid by the sponsor.

The annual tuition fees for doctoral studies are linked to your mode of study (full- or part-time) and residential status. The University reviews and sets tuition fees annually. Each student is responsible for the payment of their fees. If your fees are paid by a sponsor you will need to submit written proof of this annually in order to be eligible to re-enrol.

The University also provides information on funding and a training and development allowance. See below for more details.

Find out more about doctoral student fees in the Doctoral Student Handbook and Guidance


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