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Are autonomous shipping vessels the future of maritime commerce?

While shipping automation could reduce human error and increase safety, the UN's trade body believes a host of new issues could be created.
A concept showing a remote controlled container ship vessel powered by Rolls Royce technology.
Posted at 9:30 PM, Aug 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-02 21:30:04-04

As speculation continues on how automation will affect various industries, we are now seeing companies propose improvements to trade across oceans with automated ships. 

Rolls Royce recently released its view of what autonomous shipping would look like, calling it "the next step."

The company's Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative is investigating what technologies would be needed to allow a vessel to operate in the ocean on its own. The company says it also wants to figure out how autonomous vessels could be made "at least as safe" as existing ships. 

The AAWA project is looking at what the incentive for owners and operators will be to invest in autonomous vessels, the company says. 

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But it's not as simple as developing the technology and implementing it. The United Nation's Conference on Trade and Development said that while innovation in the maritime industry has always been a part of the sector, using cutting-edge technologies also brings concerns. 

The UNCTAD says that eliminating the "human element" from shipping could "significantly reduce the possibility of human error," but it could also open up a "Pandora's box of other risks." 

A publication called Maritime Professionals describes autonomous ships as vessels that can operate without human intervention, or even without humans on board. These watercraft are fitted with navigation systems and sensors that help the vessels make choices and operate safely. 

Machinelearning algorithms, along with predictive analysis, would be used to predict outcomes on selected paths and make the operation of the vessel more optimal, experts say. 

There are at least six companies working on automation in shipping, including Rolls Royce, Kongsberg, the Finnish company Wartsila, the U.S.-based non-profit ProMare, a Norway-based company called DNL GL and a Swiss-based company called ABB.

Andrew Smith, the founder and CEO of Outrider, told Scripps News that we are going to "need the smart people who are going to program those machines to be able to do what we need them to do."

“Across the supply chain, finding people to do these dull, dirty, dangerous tasks is a challenge for the entire industry that is shipping goods," he said. 

Rolls Royce says cybersecurity will play a critical role in making sure remote and autonomous vessels operate safely and successfully. 

Legal considerations in autonomous maritime trade and transportation

Analysis has focused on the various international and private legal frameworks that have to be considered before a company can launch autonomous vessels into international waters. 

Groups like the International Maritime Organization have been looking at how fundamental mapping can be used to created more regulatory frameworks. 

The IMO appeared concerned about how autonomous unmanned vessels at sea and their carriers would face legal liability in the event of an incident. 

Rolls Royce

The University of Michigan said that while the shipping industry is regulated on a global level, autonomous shipping presents a much less clear legal future. 

75-96% of marine accidents are blamed on human error, according to data from Allianz. But data shows that regulations for the autonomous industry always tends to lag behind innovation, as well.