Shipowners’ Club launches autonomous vessel series of articles

Shipowners’ Club said last week that it had noted a decrease in the number of crew on board vessels, with technological advances permitting previously manned functions to be streamlined or handled remotely.

The Club said that it understood that when choosing new vessels to expand their fleet Members would be beginning to consider both designing and acquiring vessels which incorporate some level of autonomy.

With this in mind, the Club said that it had developed a series of articles which aimed to equip Members with information and advice on the operation of autonomous vessels. “We hope these articles will both challenge and assist Members and their brokers during this fascinating period of revolutionary change in the industry”, the Club said.

The first piece, published lat last week, was from Roger Adamson, co-founder of market research, consultancy and information platform Futurenautics. The author aimed to identify and contextualise how a technology-enabled future would impact the lives and expectations of human beings “whilst equipping them with the information, insight and appetite to fully participate in its creation”.

Adamson noted that, due to the regulatory situation in shipping, and despite the move to autonomy offering the greatest gains for traditional freight sectors like container and bulk, the likelihood was that remote and autonomous operations would appear first in the small vessel sector.

This meant that “shipping has to start making autonomy work in the most congested waters, with a complex range of stakeholders and issues. As a consequence, if small vessels in territorial waters can demonstrate effective deployment of remote and autonomous technologies then regulatory change and widespread adoption is likely to follow fairly quickly”.

Adamson said that the momentum for autonomy was building because of a wider trend towards autonomous, intelligent and unmanned transport, which was developing as part of new supply chains and personal mobility, and was driven globally by cargo owners, manufacturers and consumers.

“Transparency, flexibility, reliability and environmentally acceptable operations are the real drivers as vertical industries merge into intelligent transport systems”, Adamson said, claiming that automation meant that eventually every single vehicle would likely be autonomous and that eventually we would not even be talking about ‘trucks’ and ‘ships’.

Adamson noted that the tank testing of the Yara Birkeland, which was due to enter service in 2019 and was an electric, self-docking, self-unloading, autonomous unmanned container ship, was being conceived and delivered “not by a ship operator but a fertilizer company”.

Adamson said that this spoke to a wider trend, that automation on this scale would reduce the specialist knowledge required to operate ships in future and open up the industry to others who might “be less respectful of its traditions”. For incumbent operators the two opportunities were:

  • to specialize in the management and operation of autonomous small commercial vessels – perhaps though providing an operating platform for such vessels to others.
  • to provide expertise and operating platforms for these operators.

Adamson said that the future was not “somewhere you go” but was instead “something you create”. He concluded that autonomous vessels were as big an opportunity for the small vessel sector as they are threat. “Owners and operators just need to embrace the change and show the rest of the industry the way.”