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Autonomous shipping is the way forward in the maritime industry

Interest in autonomous and remotely-controlled ships is growing fast. Growing seaborne trade across the globe coupled with increasing maritime tourism is anticipated to drive growth. Moreover, the lack of sailors is anticipated to drive the adoption of automated systems. These systems are installed in vessels to automate several processes, such as navigation and propulsion of the vessel, through the use of components and systems such as automated navigation systems, propulsion control systems, sensors, among others. Most of these systems are already in use across various industries and applications such as aerospace and automobile. Maritime industry players are making huge financial investments to find the optimum way to combine these systems and technologies for reliable and cost-effective functioning of unmanned vessels.


The emergence of advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud computing, big data, and augmented reality have brought the idea of autonomous vehicles to reality. Enabled by recent developments in sensor technology, connectivity at sea, and analysis and decision support software and algorithms, the first commercial projects are ready for launch in the near future.


The International Maritime Organization (IMO) took the first step to address autonomous ships in 2018. It used the term “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)” and defined it “as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction, and broadly laid out levels of autonomy.”

  • Ship with automated processes and decision support: Majority shipboard systems are operated and controlled by seafarers; however, some operations may be automated.
  • Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: Seafarers are onboard although the ship is controlled and operated from another location.
  • Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location with no seafarers on board.
  • Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.


Autonomous ships offer several direct and indirect benefits. Direct benefits can be listed at the level of vessel that include more efficient use of crew and their skills, more efficient use of ship space, and increased fuel efficiency. Shipping companies would witness a positive effect in terms of revenue with autonomous applications as a result of reduction in cost of employing sailors along with the increased cargo space on the vessel. Moreover, remote and autonomous shipping allows improved optimization of operations and processes. For example, optimizing processes or operations based on realtime data enables economies of scale at fleet and company level as well as reducing the likelihood of human errors, contributing both to safety and service quality.


Autonomous shipping could offer a way to move cargo off the road and onto the sea, improving road congestion and lowering maintenance costs, while improving air quality and safety. These benefits have prompted many governments to look into autonomous concepts, with nations such as Finland, Japan, the USA, and Singapore conducting research and trials.


Additionally, maritime trading is gaining traction worldwide which in turn requires a greater number of vessels to transport the freight. These vessels would require a huge number of seafarers for shipping operations. However, seagoing professions have witnessed a downfall due to the unattractive nature of the job. Additionally, a high degree of isolation is restricting the millennials to opt for such professions. As a result, the marine industry is witnessing a lesser number of seafarers, thus, boosting the development of unmanned ships. Unmanned ships, on one hand, reduce the labor intensity of ship operation thereby reducing the pressure on the labor market for seafarer. On the other hand, as most of the on-board tasks would be automated, only navigational and technical tasks would be left for manual operations that will be transferred from ship to shore side operations. Hence, making seafaring jobs family friendly and attractive than today.


For promoting autonomous vehicles around the globe, the One Sea Ecosystem was founded in 2016 by the top players in the marine and IT industry including ABB, Rolls-Royce, Wärtsilä, and Tieto. The One Sea -Autonomous Marine Ecosystem is developing roadmap to an autonomous maritime future, including the levels of autonomy and a timeline toward 2025. It primarily focuses on making efforts to minimize accidents, reducing the environmental footprint of maritime traffic, and improving the efficiency of autonomous marine ventures. The rising attempts to developing autonomous maritime ecosystem are expected to bolster the growth in demand for unmanned vessels in near future.


In Norway, government agencies and industry bodies established the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) to promote the concept of unmanned shipping. In addition, the Norwegian government turned the Trondheim Fjord into a test bed for autonomous ship trials.


Challenges in autonomous shipping

From the sensors on board, the reliability of machinery in an unmanned vessel, to the software which must be stable and cyber-secure, to national and international rules and regulations, there are many challenges that need to be addressed before this technology can be put into operation.


The operation of remote and autonomous ships will need to be at least as safe as existing vessels if they are to secure regulatory approval, the support of ship owners, operators, seafarers and wider public acceptance. Remote and autonomous ships have potential to reduce human-based errors, but at the same time may modify some existing risks as well as create new types of risk. These circumstances and possible remedies will need to be explored.


Although unmanned ships are planned and designed to operate without or with least human intervention, the possible damage caused by these vessels could be unimaginable. In defense application, these system create the risk of exploitation by hackers, criminals, terrorist, and other such adversaries. As these ships depend on electromagnetic spectrum along with cyberspace infrastructure, lack of on-board human responders could provide an opportunity for adversaries to interfere with these vessels and use them as a weapon. Hence, deployment of fully-autonomous ships in defense sector is expected to witness a slow growth over the forecast period.


The marine industry has some experience on systematic and comprehensive risk assessments. However, when new, emerging technology
is involved, new knowledge, wider and deeper understanding of new and changed risk (with a variety of known and unknown hazards) is needed; guided by research to lead us to new approaches the project is exploring. Cybersecurity will be critical to the safe and successful operation of remote and autonomous vessels. Cybersecurity measures, practices and standards need to be evolved.


Autonomous Ship technologies

The use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the marine industry helps in identifying faulty systems in ships and in suggesting corrective measures for them. It also leads to increased situational awareness and reduced operational risks. The incorporation of ICT in the marine industry is also changing the way ships are designed, built, and operated. It not only enables smart maintenance of ships but also leads to their automation and remote operations. With continuous improvements in cloud technologies, the marine industry is expected to become highly reliant on automated systems and ICT in the future, thereby increasing the use of automation systems in ships across the globe.


Sensor fusion

Autonomous technology depends on accurate perspective on the vessel’s surroundings at all times and in all conditions. This requires optimum way to combine the different sensor technologies in a range of operating and climatic conditions. Sensor fusion technology combines different sensors  such as different types of radars, high definition visual cameras, thermal imaging and LIDAR technologies in the most cost efficient way considering the challenges of the maritime environment.


Control algorithms

Navigation and collision avoidance will be particularly important for remote and autonomous ships, allowing them to decide what action to take in the light of sensory information received. The decision algorithms behind this need perfecting, as it requires an interpretation
of maritime rules and regulations. This leads to interpretation challenges for the programmer. The development of control algorithms
for autonomous vessels will be a gradual and iterative process and subject to extensive testing and simulation.


Communication and connectivity

Autonomous vessels will still need human input from land, making connectivity between the ship and the crew crucial. Such communication will need to be bidirectional, accurate, scalable and supported by multiple systems – creating redundancy and minimising risk. Sufficient
communication link capacity for ship sensor monitoring and remote control, when necessary, has to be guaranteed. This will require to combine existing communication technologies  such as satellite communications as well as land based systems in an optimum way for autonomous ship control.


The Mayflower Autonomous Ship

The Mayflower’s computing system processes data from 30 onboard sensors and six cameras to help the ship sail across the ocean, obey shipping rules (like how to pass other ships at sea), and control electrical and mechanical systems like the engine and rudder. There won’t be anyone on board if something goes wrong, although it does have to send a daily report to a human operator back in the UK. Today, the Mayflower is a remote-controlled craft chugging around Plymouth Harbor. Transforming it into a fully autonomous sailing vessel by next April will be a big deal for Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM’s UK and Ireland chief technology officer. Stanford-Clark and colleagues have been building the AI captain for the past few years, training it with more than a million images of ships, buoys, and natural features such as cliffs and icebergs. The algorithms that allow it to make navigation decisions may include some wildcards as well, Stanford-Clark says.



Autonomous Shipping Market

The autonomous ships market is estimated to be USD 5,866 million in 2020 and is projected to reach USD 14,256 million by 2030, at a CAGR of 9.3% from 2020 to 2030. The increasing use of automation to reduce human errors and risks, increased budgets of shipping companies for the incorporation of ICT in vessels and increasing demand for situational awareness in vessels are some of the major factors driving the market during the forecast period.


The demand for new ships and the retrofitting of existing ships with advanced technologies is expected to grow with the increase in trade activities. New defense and commercial vessels are equipped with advanced systems for improved safety and efficiency. The implementation of advanced systems acts as an important driver for the autonomous ships market. Autonomous ships are one of the variants of automated vessels. These ships involve integrating various systems and subsystems, enabling effective decision-making based on sensor fusion technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for processing the data, hence reducing or eliminating human intervention.


As most of the global commercial cargo is transported through the sea, issues related to navigational safety, risk management at sea, and protection of human resources have high importance for shipping companies. Advanced digital solutions, such as autonomous ships can help address these issues efficiently. The commercial fleet is classified into bulk carrier, container, tanker, passenger, specialized vehicle, and offshore vehicle. Unlike naval vessels, commercial shipping has been relatively slow to tap the potential of full automation. Increasing the level of shipboard automation and systems integration can lead to significant operational savings for commercial ships. Thus, this segment offers significant potential for the autonomous ships market.


Based on autonomy, the autonomous ships market is segmented into fully autonomous, remotely-operated and partial automation. The growth of the fully autonomous segment of the autonomous ships market can be attributed to the increased investments in developing autonomous ships in European region. Based on ship type, the autonomous ships market is segmented into commercial and defense. The commercial segment is expected to grow at the higher CAGR, owing to the rising seaborne trade and tourism across the globe.


Based on end use, the autonomous ships market is segmented into linefit and retrofit. The linefit segment is estimated to account for a larger share in 2020 as compared to the retrofit segment. The growth of the line fit segment can be attributed to the increased investments in naval defense by various countries and rise in seaborne trade activities across the globe.


The systems segment of the autonomous ships market has been classified into communications & connectivity; intelligent awareness systems; and reliability, health & safety management. The communications & connectivity segment has been further divided under communication management systems into satellite system, very small aperture terminal, and terrestrial communication system. These systems enable autonomy in different ship components.


Naval ships play a vital role in tactical data link operations, a part of the ship communication management systems. Tactical communication systems are used by naval forces to improve decision-making and for high reaction speed. These systems also provide access to widely dispersed naval troops and weapons. The tactical data link systems enable naval forces to operate in a synchronized manner, which is not possible through the traditional means. They allow naval forces to exchange sensor data on battlefields. These systems utilize sensor grids, engagement grids, high-quality information grids, and Command and Control (C2) processes to create a common operating picture of the battlefield, thereby allowing troops to respond quickly to enemy threats.


Digitalization in the shipping industry has led to an increased demand for automation systems across the globe, which, in turn, fuels the growth of the autonomous ships market. Tanker companies across the globe are increasing their budgets/spending to implement digitalization. According to various secondary research publications, there will be an increase of 58% year-on-year by these companies on their digitalization from 2017 to 2018. 54% of the ferry companies across the globe are also estimated to increase their spending on the digitalization of their vessels from 2017 to 2018. Moreover, 50% of service companies, which include companies offering tugs and dredgers; and 45% of deep sea fishing companies are estimated to increase their digitalization budgets from 2017 to 2018.


Marine automation systems are complex in nature as they work in coordination with several other systems, such as radar, ECDIS, and gyrocompasses. Thus, personnel operating these systems must be thoroughly trained to handle and operate them. However, the training costs are considerably high as expensive simulators are required to recreate real-life situations during the training. The overdependence of the maritime industry on e-navigation and lack of trained personnel to handle and operate integrated marine automation systems have resulted in several maritime accidents across the globe



Countries such as the US, the UK, and India are revising their existing marine safety regulations and enforcing new ones to comply with the IMO guidelines. This has enabled the manufacturers of automation systems to secure contracts from various shipping companies, thereby increasing their revenues. IMO is also working on finalizing a standard for e-navigation systems to enable the linking of onshore and offshore operations of ships for improved coordination. This standard is expected to enable small and well-established players in the autonomous ships market to develop suitable products and market them effectively. This standardization is expected to subsequently increase the demand for ship automation systems that are compliant with the IMO standards.


Europe is anticipated to witness the fastest CAGR over the forecast period owing to the increasing demand for cruise ships as well as autonomous ships in the region. Additionally, Europe has the highest number of ship owners in the world. Increasing adoption of autonomous systems and components to be retrofitted in the existing ships by these ship owners is contributing to the regional growth. Moreover, rapid technological advancements coupled with increasing trend towards adoption of automated systems in expected to spur the regional market growth over the forecast period.


Asia Pacific has witnessed rapid economic development over the years, resulting in an increase in maritime trade. This rise in sea trade has subsequently led to an increasing demand for ships for the transportation of manufactured goods worldwide. Thus, the rising number of ships has increased the demand for autonomous ships in the Asia Pacific region. According to UNCTAD, South Korea, Japan, and China are the major players in the shipbuilding industry and are expected to account for 80% of the tanker orders during the forecast period. According to IHS Marine, since 2009, 133 LNG tankers have been built in Asia – 100 in South Korea, 20 in China, and 13 in Japan. Shipbuilding companies from Japan, South Korea, and China are also among the largest players in each of the 4 major segments, namely, tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, and offshore vessels.


China holds a very strong market position with largest bulk and container ports. Sea trade accounts for more than 60% of China’s total trade which is anticipated to increase the demand for commercial vessels in the country, thereby contributing to the regional market growth.



Fully autonomous ships are those ships which can make their own decisions based on artificial intelligence and sensor fusion technology. All the systems in autonomous ships are automated and operators just program the ships to take specific routes. Companies such as Rolls Royce and Kongsberg are developing fully autonomous ships. For instance, in 2018, a contract was signed between Kongsberg, and VARD to develop the fully autonomous ship. The vessel, YARA Birkeland, will be remotely operated by 2020, after which by 2022, it will be developed to be fully autonomous. In another development in the autonomous ships market, Rolls Royce has partnered with VTT Technical Research Centre (Finland), to design, test, and validate remotely operated ships.


Key market players in the Autonomous Ships Market include ABB (Switzerland), Aselsan A.S., BAE System, Buffalo Automation, DNV Gl,
Fugro, General Electric (US), Honeywell International Inc (US), Hyundai Heavy Industries, Kongsberg Gruppen (Norway), L3Harris Asv
Ladar Ltd, Marine Technologies LLC, Marlink, Mitsui E&S Holdings Co., Ltd, Northrop Grumman Corporation (US), Orca Ai, Praxis Automation & Technology B.V.,, RH Marine, Rolls-Royce plc (UK),Samsung Heavy Industries Co., Ltd, Sea Machines Robotics, Inc,
Shone, Automation Inc,Siemens,Ulstein,Valmet,Vigor Industrial LLC, and Wartsila (Finland)



References and Resources also include:—Global-Forecast-to-2030—



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