Autonomous Ships: the future of the maritime industry?

Shipping by sea is the most efficient mode of transport, and is better for the environment than road, rail or air. Container ships usually make 3-5 port calls per journey depending on their maritime range, however, companies are still thinking of ways to increase efficiency and cut costs wherever possible.

For years the focus has been on creating a greener environment and reducing the environmental footprint of ships; new improvements are constantly being developed with this aim in mind, such as engine pieces, propeller and technology systems. Yet, perhaps the most surprising development is the arrival of the autonomous ships.

Unmanned vessels

What is an autonomous ship? It’s an unmanned vessel. Two Norwegian agricultural companies, Yara International and Kongsberg are working together to develop the world’s first electric, autonomous, zero-emissions ship named Yara Birkeland, after Yara’s founder Kristian Birkeland.

Instead of using road transport for moving goods through Norway, the ship will be able to hold up to 150 shipping containers (which may not seem like much compared to the larger ships, but this will be more than enough for these two companies). It is said this ship will replace over 40,000 truck drives per year – potentially presenting a greener transport option.

It is reported the ship will cost around $25 million to build, in comparison to the average ship build cost of $10million. Initially there will be trials with a small crew on board, with the idea that by 2020 the Yara Birkeland will be operating autonomously.

What are the advantages?

Reduced costs and increased space: if there are no crew on board there will be reduced wages, accommodation and supplies. With no crew there will be more space to utilise onboard, as there will be no requirement for crew quarters and deck house etc.

Less risk of piracy: ships can be built to make it difficult to board and even if potential threats could get aboard, the ship is controlled remotely so access on the ship could be restricted.  Also, without any crew to capture and hold to ransom, piracy becomes less valuable in the first place.

What are the potential legal issues that may arise?

Under current Maritime and International Shipping Law, there is no legislation related to the development of remote or autonomous ships in international waters. As the future of unmanned vessels develop, there will be a need for changes to international shipping laws.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) currently has 173 Member States and 3 Associate Members; getting all of these to come to an agreement will take some time. With the Yara Birkeland and similar ships already under development the legal implications need to be considered quickly!

Initial increased costs

Maintenance crews have a of work lot to do whilst the ship is at sea; if there are no crew on board the upkeep of the vessel will need to take place when the ship is at berth which will mean money will be lost. Ships usually make their money whilst they are at sea – not when they are static for maintenance (which is normally carried out by the crew or visiting teams whilst at sea).

Although money will be saved on crew and wages, it is likely the profit margins will be less than initially thought as new technology costs (inclusive of controls, sensors and communications) will need to be invested alongside the input for the initial cost of the build.

When will vessels be completely unmanned?

Rolls-Royce led, Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), foresees a remotely operated local vessel being the first stage and in operation by 2020. By 2025 the company hopes to have a remotely operated autonomous vessel in international waters. Of course, all of the above and much more will need to be addressed and considered when letting autonomous ships loose on the open sea!

Written by Amber Pittard – Global Account Manager at Alchemy Global Talent Solutions

Posted in categories: Cargo, Imports, International, Piracy, Shipping