Report: Autonomous shipping adoption to take ‘decades’


Autonomous shipping is repeatedly touted as the future of the maritime industry and development of these technologies continues. Despite this, a new report by Kennedys law firm has suggested that the adoption of fully automated shipping will take decades.

Polling 6,000 people across six territories (United Kingdom, United States, Australia, China, Singapore and Hong Kong) showed that Hong Kong had the least level of public comfort for autonomous shipping, at 17%, compared with China at 48%.

A company release on the report highlighted the UK’s response to the study noting that fewer than one-fifth of respondents, 18%, said that they were comfortable with the idea of autonomous vessels.

The general pattern is reflected in people’s broader opinion towards autonomous vehicles, ground and air, in which 48% in the UK support partially autonomous vehicles, and only 28% support full autonomy.

According to Kennedys, the main reason for their concern is safety at 67%, with respondents specifically placing trust in human judgement over computers at 63%.

Kennedys also noted that there are some challenges being faced in the autonomous adoption including the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) regulatory standards and those of the Flag State where the ships are registered.

Specifically, these challenges will present themselves when connecting ships to shore, particularly of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

There are of course numerous benefits to introducing autonomy into shipping.

Michael Biltoo, Partner at Kennedys, noted, “The benefits are clear and, ultimately, crucial: if shipping is to achieve the ever-tightening environmental standards set by a range of regulatory bodies, a far more data-driven approach to maritime logistics is absolutely necessary.

“Furthermore, the opportunity to reduce time in dry-dock repairs offers a clear long-term financial incentive to market participants. Greater automation in the sector is inevitable: there now needs to be a clear call-to-action on governments to create modern legal frameworks providing appropriate protocols on the behaviours of vehicle technology.”

Numerous OEMs are continuing the pursuit of unmanned shipping technologies including One Sea, part of the DIMECC group, which plans to have the world’s ‘first’ autonomous maritime system in operation by 2025.

‘There is a clear path towards autonomy,’ said Päivi Haikkola, Ecosystems Lead at One Sea, speaking at Port Technology International’s Smart Digital Ports of the Future Conference in Rotterdam on 5 November.

Haikkola noted that are many ‘things we can do today’ regarding the technology needed for autonomous shipping.

During her presentation, Haikkola outlined some recent developments towards One Sea’s 2025 goal, including the first Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) trial performed in accordance with the IMO’s Interim Guidelines in September 2019.

One Sea also plans the launch of a new zero-emission cargo ship in 2020 (pictured).

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), 101 session, in June 2019 approved the interim guidelines for MASS trials.

It has been noted by the IMO that 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.

Typically unmanned vehicles are suited to ‘dull dirty dangerous’ work and a report by BMT published in January 2019 suggests feasible roles for complete unmanned operations include small open data gathering, MCM vessels and hydrographic survey. Meanwhile, short sea freight and offshore supply vessels would have reduced manning but not be fully autonomous.

Meanwhile, fishing vessels and cruise ships are likely to maintain a high level of human involvement onboard for the foreseeable future.

Other uses of autonomy, noted by Kennedys, look at ship design. The IMO’s anti-pollution measures and energy efficiency standards can be met through step-change in ship design with growing use of data-driven autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

Autonomous vehicle technology can also help the gathering of additional data on engine performance, enabling ship owners to identify parts that may need repairing or replacing before they fail. This helps reduce time in dry-docks while improving performance and safety levels.

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