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Autonomous vessels – Disruption on the way for the Maritime Industry

With a myriad of emergent new technologies on the horizon of the maritime industry, such as autonomous vessels, it is vital that regulations are established to ensure the safety, security and efficiency of a new generation of ships. 

Just as car companies are betting big that self-driving vehicles will change our roads, shipping companies are making a similar bet that automation will change how we move goods around the world.

Autonomous vessels are generating increasing interest in the shipping industry, both due to novelty and promising commercial benefits. However, despite all the buzz actual investments in projects involving autonomous vessels remain few and far between. 

In May, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – responsible for regulating international shipping – initiated its work into analysing the safety, security and environmental aspects of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). Under this, IMO will look towards how such vessels can be addressed under the instruments of the organisation. 

There are many variables in maritime activities which are outside IMO’s sphere. IMO, as the global regulatory body, sets the regulations for safe, secure and efficient shipping and for prevention of pollution by ships.

We need to balance the benefits derived from new and advancing technologies against:

  • Safety and security concerns;
  • The impact on the environment;
  • International trade facilitation;
  • The potential costs to the industry; and
  • Their impact on personnel, both on board and ashore.

At 2017’s meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), a plan to conduct a series of scoping exercises on MASS was scheduled. As the first stage of that scoping exercise was conducted in May, what safety implications have been identified as a result?

The scoping exercise at the moment is aimed at looking at the current regulations in relation to maritime autonomous surface vessels

For the purpose of the regulatory scoping exercise, a “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)” is defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction.

Looking at each regulation and seeing whether it would apply to a vessel in an autonomous mode, whether it would not apply at all, or do we need to have a new rule specifically for autonomous vessels?

In order to carry out the scoping exercise of existing IMO regulations, and how they may pertain to MASS operations, IMO’s MSC has identified four different degrees of autonomy (in non-hierarchical order), recognising that a vessel may operate at different degrees within a single voyage:

  • Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated.
  • Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.
  • Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

The IMO scoping exercise will look at provisions in a number of treaties adopted by IMO over the years to set the rules for safe, secure and environmentally-friendly shipping.

These include the rules on:

  • Construction, design and equipment in the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention;
  • Collision regulations (COLREG);
  • Rules on search and rescue at sea (SAR);
  • Training of seafarers and fishers (STCW, STCW-F);
  • Loading and stability (Load Lines);
  • Tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention); and
  • Special trade passenger ship instruments for transport of large numbers of passengers, such as pilgrims, on certain voyages (SPACE STP, STP).

As a regulatory body, IMO is looking at the regulations and carrying out a scoping exercise. This is what the member states have requested. For now, fully autonomous ships are small in scale and may be for very specific purposes, such as surveying and so on. However, we do know that a number of countries and companies have expressed interest in autonomous shipping.

For example, Norway and Finland have test areas for trials of autonomous vessels; Denmark has been active in calling for international regulation on autonomous ships; and the United Kingdom ship register has under its flag the ASV C-Worker 7 autonomous vessel. 

There are also research projects under way, for example, the EU’s FP7 project, Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) aims to develop a concept for an autonomous dry bulk carrier.

These are just some examples. The company building the YARA Birkeland, for example, plans to be able to operate it in autonomous mode from 2020. This ship is going to be quite small – able to carry around 100 containers. The big container ships operating today can carry more than 18,000 containers. So big ships operating in fully autonomous mode could be some years away, perhaps decades.

For now, fully autonomous vessels are small, while most predictions are that autonomous or semi-autonomous operation would be limited to short voyages, for example from one specific port to another, across a short distance.

The scoping exercise, planned to be completed by 2020, will identify current provisions in an agreed list of IMO instruments and assess how they may or may not be applicable to ships with varying degrees of autonomy, and/or whether they may preclude MASS operations.

As a second step, an analysis will be conducted to determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations, taking into account inter alia: the human element, technology and operational factors.

As far as being involved in the debates, European countries, as member states of IMO, are invited to share their views and experiences with IMO. IMO and its meetings, like the Maritime Safety Committee, provide the fora where regulatory issues that impact on global shipping can be discussed. Member states (and NGOs in consultative status) can submit papers giving their views and experiences, such as research study outcomes. We also often see member states sharing their experiences, for example in side-event presentations during an IMO meeting.

Economic Benefit

The economic benefits of autonomous vessels are cantered around lower operational costs due to reduced fuel consumption and crew costs. Most of the reduced fuel consumption is due to the removal of the accommodation structure, which according to studies can result in a 6% reduction of fuel due to a reduction in weight and air resistance. At the same time removal of the accommodation structure lowers construction costs by 5% and opens up for more cargo space and thus higher freight income.

From this it follows that the full benefit of the autonomous technology is only likely to be obtained if a vessel is completely unmanned. If an autonomous vessel is manned, but with a reduced crew, much of the benefit is lost as the vessel will still incur certain crew costs and, more importantly, needs a costly, heavy and bulky accommodation structure.

The cost reductions must in turn be balanced against higher capital expenditure when constructing autonomous vessels. With no crew onboard there is much greater need for technical redundancy systems, such as twin screw rather than single screw propulsion, which drives up costs. According to one study a conservative estimate is that redundancy systems on board an autonomous vessel could be expected to increase construction cost by 10%.

Moreover, reduced fuel consumption may not necessarily translate into lower costs for an autonomous vessel. The reason is that the Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) widely used today is cheap, but also dirty, greasy and maintenance intensive. Without humans to ensure the smooth operation of engines operating on such fuel, machinery breakdown is a likely outcome. Autonomous vessels must instead run on higher-grade fuel such as Marine Diesel Oil (MDO) or Marine Gas Oil (MGO). Such fuel is considerably more costly than HFO and estimations have shown that MDO/MGO would have to decrease about 12% in price to justify an investment in an autonomous vessel in the current market.

Adding to an already complicated equation is the considerable amount of uncertainty surrounding investments into new technology. An overriding consideration is that return on an investment into new vessels must be calculated for 25 years, the generally accepted life-span of a vessel. This is a powerful disincentive for investments into a new and untried technology such as autonomous vessels.


One important variable is the cost of insurance. As around 80% of marine casualties are caused by human error, there is good reason to think that marine accidents are likely to be reduced due to autonomous vessels, with lower insurance premiums to follow. However, at the same time mitigating the effect of incidents will be challenging without the presence of humans. This casts some doubt on the insurance consequences of unmanned vessels. Insurers cannot easily model a new concept as there is no available data and are therefore likely to err on the side of caution when underwriting the risk.


Autonomous vessels will not be stopped by the various obstacles, but it is a good idea to take your eyes off the headline grabbing deepsea vessels and instead focus on the smaller Domestic coastal and inland waterway vessels. This is where disruption is likely to hit first. One reason for the feasibility of the “Yara Birkeland”, is that she is small in size, only 100 teu. Smaller vessels mean smaller investments and thus less risk. Being on a local trade also means the vessel is able to use an electric propulsion system not available to deepsea vessels. For similar reasons we are likely to see further smaller vessels being ordered and deployed before larger scale investments are undertaken. Such a gradual approach will provide proof of concept that provides reassurance to various stakeholders before committing capital to other larger projects.

The vision put forward by companies like Rolls-Royce is to augment a mostly autonomous system with remote control.

Mick Uberti

Marine Surveyor – Maritime Survey Australia

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