Ghost ships

The carrier shall be bound, before and at the beginning of the voyage, to exercise due diligence to…properly man...the ship…

Unlike the ‘Flying Dutchman’, crewless, drone or ‘ghost ships’, may be calling into ports sooner than we imagine.

Whether remotely operated, or fully autonomous, crewless merchant ships are on the horizon, and while there are no shortage of justifications and tech sector is prepared, legal and regulatory hurdles still need to be navigated, and marine insurers should keep watch.


Automation in marine transport is not a new concept. Merchant ships already rely on hundreds of integrated control systems and automated sensor technologies to manage propulsion, support navigation and communications, operate safety systems, and manage cargo loading and discharge.

Around 150 years ago a normal cargo ship had about 250 crew members on-board, and numbers have declined ever since. These days little more than a ‘skeleton’ crew of 10 to 15 man the helms of the world’s largest ships.

In the last couple of years the world’s leading marine technology and innovation companies have focussed their attention on turning that skeleton crew into ghosts, developing concept designs and prototypes for completely crewless ships.


In late 2014, international certification body and classification society, DNV GL, developed a concept design for a 60 metre long, unmanned, fully battery powered, zero-emission, shortsea vessel - code named the ‘ReVolt’.

This was followed by a three year research project by the European funded, ‘Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks’ (MUNIN) group, which released its final report earlier this year.

A most noteworthy project is the Rolls-Royce led ‘Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications’ initiative (AAWA), which in 2016 released its futuristic vision of land based control centres where captains remotely control more than 10 vessels at a time with the aid of interactive smart screens, voice recognition systems, holograms and surveillance drones, to monitor what is happening both on board and around the ship.

But this is only the beginning. We are already moving well past simply ‘floating’ the ideas of the future. Actual sea trials of larger unmanned ships are due to commence soon. Finnish maritime industries are establishing an ecosystem for autonomous marine transport aimed at creating autonomous marine transport systems in the Baltic Sea by 2025. Further, Norwegian maritime authorities have entered into an agreement to define a designated area for sea trials and testing of autonomous ships in Trondheim Fjord, with some companies close commencing sea trials for what they say will be the first unmanned and fully-automated offshore ship to enter service in 2018.


The two primary drivers of crewless ships are safety and costs.

First, most accidents at sea are caused by human error. On average, 1 vessel sinks every 4 days. This has a significant toll on human life with it being estimated that between 2,000 and 6,000 mariners die at sea each year. Removing the crew all but eradicates this problem. Additionally, removing the crew, removes the possibility of hostages in piracy situations.

Second, the expense incurred to crew a large cargo ship equates to approximately 44% of the cost of running the entire vessel. The removal of a crew eliminates the need for accommodation, heating and plumbing aboard these ships, in turn providing greater capacity to carry cargo. Further, removing the crew allows vessels carrying non-urgent cargo to ‘slow steam’, reducing cruising speeds to reduce greenhouse emissions. This not only has a clear benefit in fuel economy, with it being estimated that a 30% reduction in speed can save a bulk carrier around 50% in fuel, but would not be possible if a crew were on-board.

Regulatory Issues

The greatest barriers for these crewless ships are not technological, nor do they lack reason, rather it is the legal and regulatory framework that poses the greatest challenge, a reality shared by driverless cars and pilotless aircraft.

Compliance with current international marine regulations remains questionable. To date no international legal marine instrument has addressed the legalities of crewless ships. It is important to consider how, if at all, these vessels could comply with current maritime regulations such as SOLAS, COLREGs, STCW, and MARPOL, to name a few. The primary issue with these crewless ships is the ‘manning’ requirement, whether express or implicit in many of these regulations.

Expressly, for example, chapter V, regulation 14 of SOLAS, which regulates minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of ships, provides that a ship must be sufficiently and efficiently manned, and stipulates that minimum safe manning levels should be implemented aboard ships. Regulation 33 provides an obligation on the master of a ship to offer aid to other ships in distress, where it can do so, and regulation 24 requires that it must be possible to switch to manual steering with the assistance of a helmsmen. It is difficult to imagine how an unmanned ship would be able to provide assistance to a human operated ship in distress.

At least impliedly, the COLREGs, the ‘rules of the road’ on the high seas, require ships to be manned requiring, at rule 5, that a ship must maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing so as have a full appraisal of the risks of collision. Similar issues are found in the STCW, which set out minimum standards relating to watch-keeping.

Further, under most sea carriage conventions, the carrier is obliged to “properly man, equip and supply the ship”, in order for the vessel to be considered seaworthy.

Crewless ships that do not comply with current legal frameworks pose significant issues for insurers, brokers and their insureds. To the extent manning denotes seaworthiness, an unseaworthy ship is ineligible for insurance.

The difficulties posed by current regulatory frameworks are hurdles, not walls. After all, ‘sufficient’, ‘efficient’, or ‘proper’ manning may be no manning at all. In the case of semi-autonomous vessels, the obligations may be fulfilled by remote skilled operators, with any obligation to keep a proper lookout being met by sophisticated camera and audio sensory technologies, arguably superior than any human eye or ear.

Of course the more interconnected and automated a ship is, the more exposure to cyber security concerns. The possibility of cyber piracy, damage or delay through cyber disruption must be borne in mind, when presently the majority of marine insurance policies include cyber-attack exclusion clauses. Like any risk, however, the risk of a cyber intrusion will never be eradicated, only minimised. This risk mitigation occurs both on the technological side, but also through appropriate marine insurance.

Overcoming technological and regulatory hurdles demands a collaborative approach. As technology develops, so must marine insurance. Even if the ships are crewless, marine insurers must ensure their posts are manned, and continue to keep watch.

Read related items in London Market Brief - February 2017