If Drones Could Do It, Can Ships Too Be A Wonder Craft?

When drones first shot into the global eye, it was met with awe and wonder. For, in a battlefield such a craft would make all the difference between winning and losing. And when autonomous, self-driven cars made their debut, they were also met with awe. Now we have autonomous ship. Reaction to it has not been as rapturous as it was for the first two inventions. Jaya Prakash files this story.

Are autonomous ships really what, they are cracked up to be? As can be expected, the jury on that is out, and not in, at least for now.

Without any naysaying, it is perhaps one of the best technologies the maritime world has had. From the removal of deckhouses and accommodation structures and owing to the reduction in weight and air resistance, autonomous vessels can achieve fuel savings, says Applied Sciences in a review. That is the economic imperative for autonomous vessels.

But what about the environmental dimension in autonomous craft? If ships are indeed electrified, there will be zero emissions. Yet another spinoff is when autonomous ships begin replacing diesel truck journeys that are known to contribute to reducing emissions. And autonomous ships might also be safer as 58% of accidents in the shipping industry have been and continue to be attributed to human factors.

Weighing in on the findings, was Allianz Insurance. It says, “Analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims shows that human error is behind 75 percent of the value of all claims analysed, equivalent to $1.6 billion. Given the role of human error in maritime incidents, it is assumed unmanned vessels would be safer. At the same time, the risks inherent in having a crew, such as injury or loss of life, will be significantly reduced or even eliminated”.

An added benefit, according to Allianz, is the introduction of designated automated shipping lanes. Such a provision would and could make logistics easier, increasing the reliability of cargo transport. It has even been suggested that automation could result in a decline in piracy incidents as no crew will be available to be used as leverage for ransom. However, the piracy threat is ever evolving and there already is evidence that pirates have been abusing holes in cyber security to target specific cargoes, so the cyber security threat could increase in future.

Yet what is an absolute ‘no-go’ area is that autonomous ships in the era of the ongoing pandemic dramatically reduces the possibility of human contact, thus creating huge savings for ship owners who may otherwise, be required to pick up the tabs for stricken sailors. Autonomous ships can also reduce human error, decrease crewing costs, increase the safety of aquatic life, and raise fuel efficiency.

Maritime vessels, says Innovation NewsNetwork, are knownto constitute ninety percent of all international trade. Therefore, autonomous innovation in shipping could revolutionise the sustainability and efficiency of the trade sector.

Globally, there are approximately 3,000 marine collisions each year, costing companies upwards of $20bn. Studies show that three quarters of collisions are due to human error – which current collision avoidance methods are not compensating for. With the introduction of autonomous shipping technologies, collisions will dramatically be reduced and potentially eliminated entirely.

An Autonomous ship berthed at an unnamed port in the world.

Machine learning avoidance systems can collect data based on position, speed, and route to suitably assess the risk of collision. Tel Aviv-based Orca AI is developing a collision avoidance system that is currently being piloted by several shipping companies. The technology combines Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data collection to create an awareness system that predicts hazards, alerting operators of impending collisions.

Saving on the near and clear prospect of collisions lifts a huge burden off the shoulders of owners and charterers. It also saves immense time that is used in poring over the details and minutiae of insurance contract details.

Callum O’Brien, a deputy underwriter at the Standard Club predicts “a saving of over USD7m over a 25-year period per autonomous vessel in fuel consumption and crew supplies and salaries”.

Whilst freeing up space in a vessel is something that is always welcomes, autonomous vessels do allow for a more efficient use of space in ship design.

Perhaps one of the most conspicuous advantages of autonomy in ships is the Orca AI – a new navigation system which offers increased sight in the toughest conditions.

“Designed specifically for the maritime environment, this innovative system is the first of its kind for the commercial shipping industry and is helping build the foundation for the future of autonomous shipping,” according to Yarden Gross, CEO and co-founder of Orca AI. The introduction of such a system is timely, given the growing desire for autonomous capabilities within the industry, something Gross likens to a puzzle.

Another collision avoidance tool is being developed by Fujitsu Laboratories., says Innovation NewsNetwork. In collaboration with the Japanese Coast Guard, Fujitsu are testing AI-based technologies to calculate the risk of collision and near-misses from traffic control rooms. “Using risk values calculated by Fujitsu’s technologies, operators can proactively detect vessels at risk and prioritise them. This will help in preventive planning while offering accurate information to vessels,” says Hiraku Fujimoto, manager of systems division IV, social systems unit at Fujitsu Limited.


If autonomous vessels are what it has been touted to be, then why are they not being used by owners? As after all, it has proven fuel saving capabilities and is able to avoid collisions and mishaps at sea!

O’Brien argues that despite the operational savings, there will be a large capital expenditure in initially investing in the technology, especially in the early stages of its development. This is not just for the ship itself, but also the setting-up of onshore operations to monitor fleet movements. There may also be incompatibilities between the current marine infrastructure and an unmanned vessel. Further, the lack of crew will make maintenance of moving parts incredibly difficult on long voyages and breakdowns could result in significant delays.

“In our opinion, there is no viable economic benefit for a completely autonomous (AL6) ocean-going ship in the immediate future”, deduces O’Brien. He adds that, “despite a belief in the technology, there will always be value in a human presence on board overseeing operations, the safety of the ship and the safety of the cargo. There will be an application with small inland and coastal craft, but in a 20,000 TEU trans-Atlantic container ship we are only likely to see the lower levels of autonomy to aid the crew in navigation”.

Without a clear regulatory framework let alone of the IMO itself, giving autonomous ships its backing, it may conceivably take a long time even if its vaunted advantages are well known. So where can we use autonomous vessels?

Probably, for voyages hewing close to the proximity of its port of discharge.

“Mainly for short sea voyages” was what Rachit Jain, managing director of Safe Lanes Consultancy told Marine and Offshore, expressing by his assessment that though autonomous vessels may be a welcome innovation, it may just be too soon to have it on major ocean floors.

Then there is the question of cybersecurity. Autonomous vessels are easily to prone to cyberattacks and if that means that hijackers can control of the Electronic Charting Display and Information System (ECDIS), they can also have what is called ‘virtual control of the vessel’, declared Jain.

Such nightmarish scenarios are certainly not what owners and charterers want to play with. According to lawyer, Murali Pany, a managing partner in Joseph Tan, Jude Benny LLP, “Autonomous vessels pose a high risk, especially in the context of collisions. So, owners and charterers will have to ensure a very high level of protection against cyberattacks for these systems and cover themselves sufficiently with insurance”.  And such insurance can turn astronomical; something that neither owners nor charterers would readily welcome with open arms, even if they could have had made savings in their operational outlay.

Such hard-headed thinking raises even more questions than answers. Observed Heather Maxwell, a senior claims executive in the Technology Bulletin, of the Standard Club, “There is work to be done from a P&I perspective too. Should a remotely operated ship, controlled from on shore, be considered equivalent to an ROV operated from aboard a traditional ship and therefore excluded from pooling? Our view is that autonomous ships would not fall outside the definition of ‘eligible vessels’ for pooling purposes, nor would they be distinguishable from conventional manned ships for the purposes of the risks and liabilities excluded from cover”.

That assertion from Maxwell, clearly the compelling need to plug a gaping loophole in inaugurating a regulatory framework.  A key loophole, highlights Maxwell, is the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions At Sea (COLREGS) which outlines the ‘rules of the road’, providing navigation instructions for ships to follow to prevent collisions at sea. “But” she says, “specifically only apply when ‘one ship can be observed visually from the other’. Rule 5 (Lookout) insists above all on perception and judgement to assess the ‘special circumstances’ and to make a full appraisal of the risk of collision. Whilst it is feasible that a ship remotely operated or monitored from ashore could satisfy these conditions, it is difficult to see how a fully autonomous ship ever could. Not least because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 requires (under Article 94) that each ship must have a master who is always ‘in charge’.

But as can be readied and well imagined, that whilst the global shipping community welcomes the dawn of the new era of shipping innovation, are we all that immeasurably keyed up over an innovation that has a plethora of issues that have been left unanswered? Probably not, is what may be the nem con. 

Autonomous craft are not quite the wonder craft for now.  At least not yet.

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