Autonomous shipping: The future of seafaring

Posted on 12 Dec 2018 by The Manufacturer

The maritime industry is about to experience tremendous change in the next few years. But what will it mean for jobs, safety and the environment?

Among the benefits autonomous shipping could bring include higher employment, reduced costs and little piracy - image courtesy of Depositphotos
Among the benefits autonomous shipping could bring include higher employment, reduced costs and little piracy – image courtesy of Depositphotos

Advances in autonomous shipping are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Last week, the world’s first autonomous ferry was launched in Finland. Falco – which is operated by Finferries and uses Rolls-Royce ship technologies – is equipped with IoT technology that can detect objects using sensor fusion and AI.

Its autonomous navigation system allows the vessel to automatically alter course and speed when approaching its destination.

Next year, a Norwegian chemical company is expected to launch the world’s first autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. It has been touted as a zero emissions vessel that could potentially reduce diesel-powered truck haulage by up to 40,000 journeys a year.

The Yara Birkeland will be the first of many ships that revolutionises the maritime industry. Autonomous ships, like autonomous cars, are expected to one day be the norm. “We are some way off full commercial operation [of autonomous ships],” says Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, “but it definitely is going to happen in the not too distant future.”

So what will autonomous ships do to the seafaring industry? Rolls-Royce say there are multiple advantages to unmanned remotely controlled vessels. They include reductions in accidents and costs, a more efficient use of space and fuel, and the diminished threat of piracy.

Like autonomous cars though, many concerns have been raised about the consequences of adopting this new technology. There is the expenditure of the technology. Concerns over lost jobs mimic the worries of road haulage and taxi drivers losing their livelihood. Ships will even face another growing automotive sector worry; hacking. So, while fears of a hijacked ship may dissipate, fears of a computer-hacked ship will take their place.


Rolls Royce launched the world's first autonomous ferry last week. One benefit of unmanned shipping is the possible reduction in accidents. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Security. between 75% and 85% of shipping accidents are caused by human error - image courtesy of Rolls Royce
Rolls-Royce launched Falco, the world’s first autonomous ferry last week. Autonomous shipping is expected to create more jobs in the maritime industry with high-skilled route operators expected to be in greater demand – image courtesy of Rolls-Royce

Much of the uneasiness surrounding automation in whatever industry concerns job losses. Early this year, the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations (IFSMA) published a paper citing job losses as a reason to oppose unmanned automated ships.

But according to a report from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), fears about unemployment arising because of automation in shipping are misplaced. It says that even on its most optimistic projections regarding the number of autonomous ships that will come on the market by 2025, there is “no reason for fear of job losses.”

For a start, new types of jobs will be created by automation; high-skilled route operators, new kinds of pilots, and riding gangs will be required to keep ships operational. There is already a shortage of seafarer officers, which is estimated to reach 147,500 by 2025, so there are plenty of job openings available for wannabe seafarers. The report says seafarers with higher qualifications will comfortably adapt to the changes that the sector will undergo.

The Nautilus Federation, a maritime workers’ trade union concurs with the report’s findings on jobs. Job losses therefore seem to be more of an imagined threat. As MITE editor, Kevin Tester writes: “Autonomous ships are more likely to alter jobs rather than eliminate than and..this combined with the creation of new types of jobs, will lead to greater prosperity.”

Maritime Safety

Automation advocates often point to increased safety as a major advantage. When fully developed, self-driving cars are expected to lead to a considerable drop in automotive accidents.

Autonomous ships could be the future for the maritime industry - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
A purported benefit of autonomous shipping is the reduction in accidents. According to the insurer Allianz, between 75% and 96% of shipping accidents are caused by human error – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Many argue similar reasons for adopting autonomous technology in shipping. Allianz Global Corporate & Security estimate that between 75% and 96% of accidents in the shipping sector are caused by human error.

These errors cause huge liability costs for shipping firms. The growing maritime sector is on expected to increase the risk of human error occurring. Automation could therefore save companies a lot of money.

Automation is not necessarily a panacea though. Captain Rahul Khanna, Allianz’s global head of marine risk consulting says that as autonomous vessels are introduced, they will need to learn to co-exist with manned vessels: “That may be one of the biggest challenges,” he iterates.

He warns that most vessels are not ready to navigate narrow waters like the English Channel or the Singapore Strait. Nor will automation reduce the risk of human error, “We will see semi-autonomous vessels for some time in the future and they will be as much prone to human error as any other vessel. Any shore management of these vessels will also be dependent on human decision-making which could lead to losses.”


The 2013 fact-based Tom Hanks film Captain Phillips tells the story of a ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Danish drama, A Hijacking, was released the year previously with a similar premise.

Cybersecurity will become a more common worry in the shipping sector. Last year, the shipping conglomerate Maersk suffered a cyber attack that cost the firm between $250 million and $300 million - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Cybersecurity will become a more common worry in the shipping sector – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Thankfully, the days of the hijacked ship may be over thanks to autonomous shipping. The costs of insuring a ship should shrink; after all, there will be no crew for pirates to hold hostage for ransom.

But rather than ending piracy, its nature would probably just alter. You may have read about or watched YouTube videos about cars being ‘hacked’ by computers. Well, cyber-hacking has already created problems for the shipping sector. In 2017, Maersk fell victim to a cyber attack that reportedly cost the company between US$250m – $300m.

The rapid digitialisation that is being undertaken in the maritime industry is making ships more vulnerable to cyber attacks. The Maersk attack shows that cyber-hacking is a major worry for the industry. The high costs of hacking shows that if the modern-day Aristotle Onassis’ want to save money, they cannot afford to be careless about cybersecurity.

Autonomous technology for ships exists and works

Just as technologically-heavy industries are being disrupted by AI, shipping will experience profound changes in the coming decades. The ethical and security concerns that will emerge from this technological revolution must be accorded time and thought. The case of the Maersk cyber-attack proves the industry must not show complacency.

But even if security concerns delay their implementation, the transition to autonomous shipping is unstoppable. Economically, it’s common sense. And government and industry are spearheading that move. Falco, Rolls-Royce’s autonomous ferry is the start of a new era that will profoundly change how people and goods are moved around.

As Rolls-Royce remark: “We have demonstrated that autonomous technology for ships exists and works. We’ve said earlier that we expect to see it in commercial use by 2020. Digitalisation of the maritime industry will create new types of jobs, and change the way some of us work. We believe it’s a journey that both ship operators, ship builders and technology providers will take part in.”

Reporting by Harry Wise