Rise of the Maritime Machines

November 12, 2018 12:21 pm

What’s that blip on the maritime industry’s radar coming relentlessly closer as we look to avoid a collision? Looks like it is autonomous shipping – and there is nothing that will seemingly stop its rise. The future of ships is unmanned…but does that necessarily mean an end to “seafarers”?


There has been a frenzy of coverage regarding autonomous ships, and the media is very quick to jump to a whole host of conclusions. There is almost as much excitement about unmanned ships as there is about the blockchain and digitalisation in shipping.

So, what is the current state of play? Well, there are some very big, important and influential companies who are putting their weight behind the move to autonomous vessels. They are convinced that technology is heading toward a new future for shipping.

Companies such as Kongsberg in Norway and Rolls Royce have been leading the charge. Interestingly, it should be remembered that Kongsberg bought the commercial maritime division of Rolls Royce at the start of 2018, with closure on the deal expected in 2019.

So, while there are a number of names in the frame, it seems there is some consolidation too. That also hints at the vast sums of investment being put into this project. The development of autonomous ships is not cheap – and that should give a hint to the determination of the industry to make it happen.


Following the Norwegian influence and leadership in the autonomous ship debate, the Classification Society DNV has been a prime mover in the development of standards for autonomous vessels. Though the likes of Lloyd’s Register (LR) and ABS have been quick to get involved too.

The LR approach has proposed six autonomy levels (ALs) and range from AL1 for ships with data collated for onboard decision making, through to AL6 which denotes a fully autonomous ship with no access required during a mission. The idea is that these levels should help designers, shipbuilders, equipment manufacturers, shipowners and operators to accurately specify the desired level of autonomy in design and operations.

There is so much to consider, from the requirements concerning the person having “command” of a vessel, and ironically the issues of safe manning, training and the very concept of a “proper lookout” in international conventions (SOLAS, STCW, COLREG). The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) has been undertaking a regulatory scoping exercise to enable the safe, secure and environmental operation of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) within the existing IMO instruments.

Under the current preparatory study, the IMO is looking into several critical issues: the human, legal, and responsibility elements; how the new provisions could be enacted and employed; and how an amendment would affect other IMO instruments. There is still a long process ahead, but the expectation is that a provisional agenda will be in place by 2020.


While the issues of regulation and legislation are tough to tackle, it seems the actual technology is one of the more straightforward aspects of the autonomous ship debate.

There are several high-profile projects which are showing the possible ways forward, these are the “Yara Birkeland” which is very much an autonomous solution, whereas Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), is looking to a middle ground with their “Sunflower” project.

The Sunflower project focuses on research related to advancement of watch keeping from the bridge. The team has been reportedly making good progress and recently verified the system’s performance such as detecting debris and other obstacles at sea.

According to reports, the system’s data fusion capabilities were tested in the Seto Inland Sea, one of the world’s most congested waterways, where general merchant ships, pleasure boats, fishing boats, many other vessels come and go. The system even received positive comments from crewmembers onboard the vessel, as the crew felt they could have enhanced capabilities and the ability to provide more reliable watch keeping from the bridge.

The test also led to an idea for an advanced user interface, which can provide information with greater precision. MOL plans to continuously accumulate data on the sea and use it to generate practical improvements in watch standing performance that make the system suitable for navigation while upgrading its performance in adverse weather.


As the Sunflower project has shown, and as reflected in the LR Classifications, there is not a single solution to the idea of smart shipping. Different companies, different trades and even different areas may need their own answers to the questions of modern, technologically advanced ships.

So, it is not necessarily all bad news for the seafarers of today and even tomorrow. Kongsberg has even spoken out to try and allay fears that their technological advancements will lead to widespread job losses in the industry.

“Sailors fear for their jobs when they hear about what we are doing, but autonomous does not mean unmanned,” said Peter Due, director autonomy, global sales, and marketing at Kongsberg Maritime. According to the company, only a small percentage of future ships will be unmanned and the remainder will be fully or partly manned. They added, that on the high seas, autonomous vessels would maybe require fewer crew, but there would still be the need for maintenance teams onboard.

While for the short sea shipping market, although the ships will be unmanned, they will still be monitored by “seafarers” working in onshore control centres. So, rather than job losses, they actually see a host of new roles and opportunities.


Despite the attraction of the most technologically advanced vessels, ship owners will need to see a competitive advantage to eliminating some or all of their crews before fully autonomous shipping will be embraced.

While even those who embrace the future will likely need to hire and train capable shoreside support services. Eliminating any crew members, or autotomising any functions related to maritime operations will automatically require the development of shoreline infrastructure systems around the coasts.

Not only will this be necessary for monitoring and control purposes, but also for maintenance, repair, and other operational support teams. Which means that while some jobs may well be lost, there will be many more new roles created.

This mirrors reports from other industries, most notably trucking. The University of Pennsylvania suggests that jobs lost by driverless trucks will in fact simply be replaced by the expansion of “autonomous truck ports” where local human drivers will bring goods to the driverless trucks. So, all is not yet lost for seafarers.

What do you think? As a seafarer are you ready for the future? What role would you like? Are you excited or worried about the future? We would love to hear your thoughts, so let us know.