Autonomous Ships and the Future of the Shipping Industry

Developments in technology have led to an increased reliance on artificial intelligence and autonomy in various vehicles such as cars, planes, helicopters and trains. The latest vehicles to implement autonomous technology into their operations are shipping vessels. Autonomous ships will transform the industry and current regulations are being reassessed to determine the best way to include this futuristic way of shipping.

he shipping industry is regulated on a global level and it remains one of the most heavily regulated industries today. International shipping is principally regulated by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency responsible for the safety of life at sea and the protection of the marine environment. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed a comprehensive framework of global maritime safety regulations that was adopted from international conventions. In order to be proactive, IMO initiated a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The scoping exercise is led by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee and is expected to be completed by 2020. The goal of the exercise is to determine how autonomous ships may be implemented into regulations and will touch on issues such as safety, security, liability, the marine environment and the human element.

In order to assess the scope of differing levels of autonomous ships, IMO defined four degrees of autonomy. The lowest degree of autonomy involves automated processes that can control the ship at times. Seafarers will remain in charge of operating and controlling the ship when the automated system is not activated. The second degree is a remotely controlled ship with seafarers still on board. The ship will be controlled from another location but the seafarers on board will be able to take control if necessary. The next degree is a remotely controlled ship without any seafarers on board. Lastly, the highest degree of autonomy is a fully autonomous, unmanned ship that is equipped with the ability to make decisions and take action by itself.

Several companies have already begun implementing autonomous capabilities into their ships and the technology is rapidly developing. While the scoping exercise is underway, the Maritime Safety Committee approved interim guidelines for trials to be completed on existing and emerging autonomous ships. The trials should be generic and goal-based and take a precautionary approach to ensure the operations are safe, secure, and environmentally sound. In 2018, Rolls-Royce conducted its first test of an autonomous ferry named Falco. To demonstrate two degrees of autonomy, the ferry was fully autonomous on its outward voyage and then switched to a remotely controlled operation on its return to port. The controller was in a command center 30 miles away and he successfully took over operations of the ship and guided it to the dock.

Autonomous ships are expected to improve safety, reduce operating costs, increase efficiency and minimize the effects of shipping on the environment. An increased reliance on autonomy will reduce the chance for human error thereby improving safety. Human error accounts for 75-96% of marine accidents and accounted for $1.6 billion in losses between 2011 and 2016. Operational costs are also expected to decrease as there will be little to no crew on board. Crew costs can constitute up to 42% of a ship’s operating costs. If there is no crew then accommodations such as living quarters, air conditioning and cooking facilities can be eliminated. Further, a ship free from crew accommodations and seafarers will make voyages more efficient because the ship will have an alternate design and an increased carrying capacity. Lastly, autonomous ships may prove to be better for the environment than current vessels. The ships are expected to operate with alternative fuel sources, zero-emissions technologies and no ballast. 

As we have seen in other transportation industries, regulation for autonomous vehicles falls far behind the technological innovation. By taking a proactive approach in the case of autonomous shipping, IMO may be ready to create regulations that better reflect the future of shipping within the next decade.