Autonomous sailing: the future is almost here

Autonomous shipping is not just a fanciful idea that could happen in the future. It is being developed now and if projections are right, we will see remotely operated local vessels in the next few years and fully autonomous ocean-going vessels by 2035. Global shipping will revolutionise on scales not seen since containerisation, with a significant impact on marine insurance markets and the allocation of risk. Its implementation comes with multiple technological and regulatory challenges, which this article will look at.

What is autonomous sailing?

It is envisaged that there will be different levels of autonomy on vessels – but the ultimate aim is to have crewless vessels controlled onshore by one person (who would be capable of controlling multiple vessels at the same time) or vessels requiring no human interaction at all.  In July 2016 the Lloyd’s Register launched a guidance setting out autonomy levels (ALs). There are seven different ALs, from AL 0 (manual with no autonomous function) to AL 6 (fully autonomous – unsupervised operation) with differing levels of human interaction in between.

Leading the way in the development of autonomous ships is undoubtedly Rolls Royce, who project that, by 2020, we will see remotely operated local vessels. That might even be closer than first thought as the UK’s Automated Ships Ltd and Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime build the “HRÖNN”, which they say could enter service as the world’s first full size unmanned ship as early as 2018.

Rolls Royce predict that, by 2025, there will be remote controlled, unmanned coastal vessels and, by 2030, they will be capable of sailing the ocean. This will all lead to 2035 when we might see fully autonomous, unmanned ocean–going ships. To meet these projections, there have been a number of initiatives set up worldwide, such as the Advance Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), led by Rolls Royce, or the UK’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG).

Benefits offered by autonomous sailing

The drive to autonomous shipping is unsurprisingly mainly financial. Moving towards greater autonomy and unmanned shipping will cut transport costs - with savings estimated to be between 22% and 44%. With little or no crew on board, there are lower staff costs and vessels will be more efficient. Certain vessel features, such as the deck house or crew quarters will either not be needed or significantly reduced. Ship design can then change so that vessels are lighter, sleeker and more fuel efficient. Vessels of the future will look very different from those being built today.

A vessel without a crew will obviously offer a number of safety concerns. However according to a report published by Allianz in 2012, between 75% - 96% of marine accidents can be attributed to human error, with fatigue often cited. It is also suggested that without a crew on board, a host of solutions to save or secure a vessel or cargo in peril become available because crew safety will no longer be at the forefront of decision making.

Moreover it has been reported that there is a growing shortage of people with maritime skills who have less inclination to spend time away from home. Autonomous operations will mean maritime jobs in operation centres on land. This new type of ‘sailor’ may well begin to attract more people to the maritime industry requiring new training, and opening up a new industry in itself.

Never far from a maritime discussion is piracy. It is suggested that operating vessels without crews could make sailing pirate-infested waters less risky. The pirates will no longer have their most valuable asset in negotiations – the crew. Moreover, the new designs of un-crewed vessels could be designed so that they are difficult to board in the high seas and even if pirates were able to board, the vessels could be automatically disabled (with no concern of the threat to the crew) giving naval authorities time to reach the vessel and take back control. 


The main technological obstacle has been communication between ship and shore because of the sheer size of data to be transferred. But a new generation of communication satellites, enabling affordable bandwidth, should get over this hurdle. This data will be needed to monitor the vessel’s performance and condition of the cargo, and for information from shore to ship.

Crewless vessels will not however have anyone to deal with problems which simply cannot be handled by the systems on board, such as some engine breakdowns. One idea to combat this will be to dispatch engineers to port, although that does not cater for problems requiring immediate attention.

Perhaps the greatest concern with greater autonomy is the cyber-attack, specifically the danger that the vessel’s controls (whether automated or controlled from shore) can be hacked. Cyber security continues to grab headlines, such as South Korea’s claim in April 2016 that North Korea disrupted fishing vessel operations by interfering with GPS signals. Recently the Queen opened the national cyber security centre, designed to improve Britain’s resilience to attacks. Rolls Royce recognise this risk must be addressed but stringent criteria will no doubt be demanded before full autonomy is allowed. 

It is regulation that will the biggest obstacle. The concept of autonomous shipping means that many regulations will no doubt need rewriting. Safety is one such example.  Shipping is geared towards safety of the crew, vessel and cargo –which interact with one another. A vessel must be safe to ensure the safety of the crew and cargo. The cargo must be safe to ensure the safety of the crew and vessel. And for the vessel and cargo to be safe, there must be sufficient crew on board (e.g. UNCLOS, article 94(4) (b) or article III, rule 1(b) of the Hague-Visby Rules). Regulations will have to react to the new type of crewless vessel. 

Another example is the collision regulations which require, amongst other things, good seamanship and maintaining a lookout by sight and hearing. Will autonomous vessels meet that criteria? Will such vessels, that will make navigation decisions based on complex algorithms,  be capable of good seamanship and making decisions ‘outside of the box’, especially considering the unpredictability of the sea, or will the computer say ‘no’ when faced with a problem not in their algorithm?

The drive for automated vessels is firmly underway, pulled along by technological advancement. Regulation however will be the sobering anchor to this revolution in shipping.

This article was first published by Insurance Day on 3 March 2017