Is autonomous shipping a reality?

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to revolutionize various industries, the concept of autonomous vehicles has become a subject of intense interest and speculation. While autonomous cars have garnered the most attention, there is also significant technological progress in the development of autonomous ships. 

Although autonomous and remote-controlled ships are being trialed in some regions, for the moment, they are still limited to short voyages, for example, from one specific port to another across a short distance. 

Undoubtedly, there is growing enthusiasm surrounding this technology, and unmanned ships can potentially have a transformative impact on the shipping industry, offering the promise of reduced human errors and environmental impact, and increased safety, efficiency, and cost savings.

Be that as it may, there are several major obstacles that need to be overcome before autonomous ships can become a mainstream reality. Before autonomous ships can be the new normal for the mass transportation of goods and cargos across oceans all over the world, governments have to work through the legal, regulatory and liability implications first. 

Even though taking the human element out of the equation to reduce the possibility of human error, it also opens a pandora’s box of other risks. One of the foremost concerns is the legal and regulatory framework. The existing international maritime laws and regulations were not designed to accommodate fully autonomous vessels, raising questions about liability, responsibility and accountability in the event of accidents or malfunctions. 

If an accident involves an autonomous ship, finding out who was liable creates a difficult challenge, as the shipping company, software provider, hardware provider or onshore monitoring stations may be at fault. 

Historically, captains are assumed to be in overall command of the ships and are the first to be put under scrutiny if anything does happen. In the case of autonomous ships, without a clear leader in charge, it is the role of international regulation to determine who is ultimately responsible for any accidents. 

Another example. Rule 5 in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG) requires there to be a lookout present in order to avoid collisions and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) require ships to be able to assist in search and rescue operations, such as picking up survivors in case of a shipwreck. 

However, without any human on-board autonomous vessels, it will be a difficult task to comply with these regulations. 

To address these concerns and others, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)-led collaborative efforts are underway between industry stakeholders and regulatory bodies to adapt existing regulations or develop new ones to ensure that autonomous ships can operate safely and compliantly.

IMO aims to integrate new and advancing technologies in its regulatory framework, balancing benefits derived against safety and security concerns, impact on environment and on international trade facilitation, potential costs to industry, and effect on personnel, both on board and ashore. 

IMO wants to ensure that the regulatory framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) keeps pace with technological developments that are rapidly evolving.

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 106th session in November 2022 made further progress on the development of a goal-based instrument regulating the operation of MASS. The aim is to adopt a non-mandatory MASS Code to take effect in 2025, which will form the basis for a mandatory MASS Code, expected to enter into force on January 1, 2028.

Other potential challenges

A critical challenge is the development of reliable and robust technology to support autonomous ships, for example in the area of cyber security. Due to increased reliance on information and communications technology and constant data transmission needed between ships and onshore command centers, cyber security is a serious issue that need to be addressed. 

In a cyberattack, an autonomous ship’s controls and data is vulnerable and may be compromised because it requires a constant Internet connection to allow monitoring and control. Without an onboard crew to take control manually, regaining command can become difficult.

Cyberattack is a big risk where hackers have managed to compromise systems such as Automatic Identification System (AIS), using cheap jammers to spoof GPS signals and hacking into the servers of container terminals in order to get shipping manifests. 

The maritime industry has been criticized for not being able to keep up with technological innovation, lagging 10 to 20 years behind other industries and leaving computer networks insecure and open for intrusion by organized crime and state actors.

Additionally, public acceptance and trust in autonomous ships are crucial for successful implementation. The idea of large vessels moving across oceans without a human crew may create unease and skepticism. 

Therefore, it is essential for the industry to engage in transparent public relations and education to address concerns and misconceptions. Demonstrating the robustness of autonomous ships through successful pilot projects and proving safety and reliability will play a pivotal role in gaining public trust.

An inevitable outcome

Human error is responsible for a significant number of maritime accidents. By removing human operators from the equation, autonomous ships could effectively eliminate the risks associated with fatigue, human error, and decision-making under stressful conditions. 

Furthermore, autonomous ships could be equipped with advanced sensors and machine learning algorithms that continuously collect and analyze data, allowing for real-time decision-making and proactive response to potential hazards. This level of automation has the potential to greatly enhance the safety and reliability of maritime transportation.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, autonomous ships could potentially reduce operating costs by up to 22 percent. This is primarily due to the elimination of crew wages, reduced fuel consumption through optimized route planning and speed control, and the ability to operate ships 24/7 without the need for crew rotation. These cost savings could translate into lower shipping costs, making international trade more affordable and accessible.

The incident of piracy may be lowered because autonomous ships can be designed to make it difficult for pirates to board, with hard to access cargo and manual controls. When piracy occurs, the command center can immobilize the ship or have it sail a predetermined route to meet up with naval or law enforcement forces. Also, without seafarers to hold hostage for ransom, autonomous ships are arguably less valuable as targets.

With the prevalence of AI, machine learning and advanced robotics, the possibility of developing fully autonomous ships is no longer a mere fantasy. With collaborative efforts among stakeholders, regulatory advancements and continuous technological advancements, autonomous ships may indeed become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Photo credit: iStock/ PhonlamaiPhoto

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