Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships: The Next Big Thing in Shipping?

Autonomous navigation technology and self-driving vehicles are no longer a concept exclusive to fiction but now a reality, thanks to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and various other frontier technologies like blockchain. Many consider this futuristic innovation to have begun with street-legal cars like those offered by the renowned car brand Tesla, and it will only be a matter of time before it is also applied to other vessels, particularly seafaring ones.

Crewless container ships have long been on the horizon as they are already being tested and trailed, with various industry experts predicting that they are poised to become the norm in many shipping operations. Read on as we go over whether Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are the future of the maritime sector or just a trend that will serve a niche purpose.

The Current State of Autonomous Shipping Vessels

Many shipping companies have been looking into the feasibility of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships in their operations for some time now, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has laid the foundation for their safe and clean operation ever since 2017 to guarantee their safe operation once they become operational. Progress on this end continues undeterred to this day, but further developments in technology and regulations are still required before these ships are permitted to sail without any humans on board.

Many factors have helped accelerate the digital revolution in the shipping industry, primarily the IMO’s Maritime Safety Commission approval of interim guidelines for testing autonomous ships back in 2019, giving established companies the green light to work on their pilot projects. A couple of noteworthy examples of these projects include the Norwegian Yara Birkeland container ship powered by Kongsberg Gruppen technology and the Mayflower, an autonomous vessel developed by Promare with IBM acting as both lead scientific partner and lead technology partner for the project. As of today, the Mayflower has successfully crossed the Atlantic through AI alone, reaching Plymouth, Massachusetts, after departing from Plymouth, UK.

Given these speedy advancements, the typical container ship may soon be equipped with cutting-edge systems capable of diagnosing its health, sensing its surroundings, and making smart decisions about its route. And while not all may be completely autonomous like the Mayflower, especially larger vessels, which may still need a small crew to remotely control certain operations, they will still offer significant advantages to safety and efficiency.

By using just a skeleton crew, autonomous ships will be more efficient regarding space, fuel, and personnel, allowing shipping firms to reduce the likelihood of human error and further optimize their operations. This is vital in an industry wherein human mistakes cause 75%-96% of all shipping accidents.

A More Realistic Outlook Towards Autonomous Ships

Ship autonomy is a concept that has garnered longstanding interest in the shipping community, and it is gradually becoming a reality—in certain applications, that is. However, some are not entirely convinced of its practicality, such as the CEO Soren Skou, head of the world’s biggest ocean carrier, Maersk Line.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he stated that his firm already deploys small crews on its gigantic ships and does not see much advantage in removing these last few people from their vessels. And even if the technology were available and there were a comprehensive list of commercial reasons to do so, “I don’t expect we will be allowed to sail around with 400-meter long container ships, weighing 200,000 tonnes without any human beings on board,” he said. He also mentioned that these ships of the future will not be a driver of efficiency, at least in his time.

Advancements in camera and sensor technology, satellite technology, electromechanical actuators, and so on promise a future wherein ships will someday sail the seas without any crew on board. Yet, it is most likely that the world will never see transoceanic cargo ships with fully autonomous capabilities, and the vessels that do get deployed are expected to only operate in very limited situations. The IMO and other authorities like Comité Maritime International are already looking into how these new types of vessels will fit in the current framework of international maritime law.

Although it is commendable to plan ahead for the future, crewless ships operated solely by remote operators and computers pose a myriad of vulnerabilities, and having them replace today’s manned vessels will likely prove too costly of an endeavor. Moreover, the maritime professionals manning the numerous ships in operation today are the critical decision-makers, security personnel, and maintenance crews who make shipping operations secure, inexpensive, and efficient.

Once we get past all the promises of invaluable benefits, however, the risk of legal liabilities, environmental calamity, and disastrous collisions will ensure that human personnel persist aboard ships. Yes, technological advances will continue to raise the efficiency and safety of shipping, but they are not yet in a position to take the role of human masters and crew members in today’s commercial ships.

Despite all the enthusiasm surrounding the potential of MASS, their benefits are still up for debate. Switching to a fully autonomous fleet may generate substantial cost savings for shipping companies by eliminating the need for crew. Still, this advantage is diminished since new technicians and operators will ultimately take their place in order for a system of autonomous vessels to work. Add on the initial investment in new equipment to automate a ship, and companies will be in for an extremely expensive transition that also introduces many new potential points of failure in their operations.


In recent years, articles about autonomous ship technology generally proclaim that it is just on the horizon and that its widespread adoption is among the many changes that lay in store for the maritime industry of tomorrow. But while the future of autonomous vessels looks quite promising at an initial glance, many obstacles must be overcome before they can achieve commercial success and viability.

Such a sense of reality must be injected into any debate regarding autonomous ships, as well as keep in mind the truism that any electronic and mechanical systems can and will fail at some point. For vital applications with considerable risk to human life, such as in the aviation industry, it is essential to devise numerous safeguards, tolerances, and redundancies to ensure an adequate margin of safety.

The challenge in designing autonomous cargo ships is building a system that features high safety and security from physical and digital threats and can function effectively in all maritime conditions without needing a single soul on board. And even if such a system were possible to build, it would most likely cost more than a fortune to make a reality and operate compared to its manned counterparts.

As a result, there is little chance for autonomous ships to displace the human element of shipping operations that have always upheld the safety and security of the maritime transportation system.

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