Home / Technology / AI & IT / Autonomous shipping or Autonomous shipping or Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) technologies

Autonomous shipping or Autonomous shipping or Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) technologies

Autonomous ships refer to the ships that are remote built ships where operations are performed by remote control mechanism. These operations are operated by the humans located at the shore. Autonomous requires high quality systems and reliable communication system which work with the assistance of connectivity, control algorism and sensor technology. RADAR technology is used by the control system used for autonomous ships.


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 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.


Worldwide, there are now more than 1,000 maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) operated by more than 53 organizations. These vessels work alongside manned vessels with minimal autonomous-specific regulation.


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.


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.


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

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. 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.


A ship’s ability to monitor its own health, establish and communicate what is around it and make decisions based on that information is vital to the development of autonomous operations. Cybersecurity will be critical to the safe and successful operation of remote and autonomous vessels.


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. A vessel’s voyage is covered by a range of national, international and private legal frameworks. To further complicate matters, maritime law does not anticipate the development of remote or autonomous ships


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 technology is well developed and found in many forms of autonomous vehicle operation, most notably cars where competing developers have prioritised differing technologies. Some of the sensor technologies are different types of radars, high definition visual cameras, thermal imaging and LIDAR.


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.


Sensor technologies can provide a vessel or its remote operators with an accurate perspective on the vessel’s surroundings at all times and in all 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 minimizing risk. Sufficient communication link capacity for ship sensor monitoring and remote control, when necessary, has to be guaranteed. This will require combining existing communication technologies such as satellite communications as well as land-based systems in an optimum way for autonomous ship control.



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


The skills needed for the next generation of deck and engineering officers will be different than those required until now. To prepare officers for this different environment, the Italian Shipping Academy has established a cadet training program, which focuses on the digitalization and automation of both manned and unmanned vessels. The training combines technical competencies in electronics, engineering, data analysis, and digital technologies with the soft skills of decision-making, problem solving and situational awareness. The academy believes that this split approach will prepare cadets for a career on board, as well as a role manning digital bridge at a remote control station.


Autonomous Ships Demonstrations

Many demonstrations of autonomous ships have already been made and unmanned ships are currently under development. Aquatic Drones, a Dutch maritime technology company, has developed small, autonomous vehicles that film underwater, providing information on ship and port conditions below the water line. These drones increase inspection speed, saving time and money. Aquatic Drones is already working with the Port of Rotterdam and has just launched a test with the Port of Amsterdam.


Rolls Royce is partnering with Intel with an ambition to build the first completely autonomous ship. The company announced in Oct 2018 that it is working with Intel to develop a full fleet of autonomous cargo vessels that require no humans onboard by 2025. In order to take its first step towards launching this un-crewed vessel, it introduced the Intelligent Awareness System in one of the crewed vessels this year.


The system is packed with a large network full of cameras, radar, and LIDAR, which are controlled by a centralized program. With the help of vision algorithms, it can detect obstacles in night time and within the busy ports. With the new deal that Rolls Royce has struck with Intel, the firms plan to use 3D NAND solid-state drives for storing the data that would come from this network and use Intel Xeon chips to process this information. The intelligent awareness system is a revolutionary next step in the technology because it will have the capacity to automatically classify any obstacles around it, that include tankers, ship, cruise, pleasure craft or tugs.


Additionally, it also helps in improving the visibility in case of adverse weather conditions because it combines data from several sources. It is immensely helpful in cases where the ship navigates in places like docks with close quarters.


“This collaboration can help us to support ship owners in the automation of their navigation and operations, reducing the opportunity for human error and allowing crews to focus on more valuable tasks,” Daffey added. The focus of both the companies is on safety, and they aim to build these ships with the similar technology that is found in smart cities as well as autonomous drones and cars. This advancement is definitely a feat in the history of maritime technology.


This collaboration is only bound to work in the betterment of ships and vessels to empower them and make them more self-sufficient without the need for human intervention.


The Flemish Smart Shipping program is an active autonomous initiative utilizing the 1,000-plus kilometers of Belgium’s inland canals and rivers. Its four-pronged approach combines minimally crewed autonomous ships with a smart infrastructure utilizing automated canals and locks. This is all possible through a waterborne communication network, allowing the vessels to interact with the smart infrastructure. New Flemish regulations give the autonomous vessels a legal means to operate. Smart Shipping is active in the Flemish countryside with vessels controlled by a master or mate from a centralized station. The program includes inland barges and vessels seeking and removing large floating debris from the waterways.

In the Netherlands, the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions are working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to produce a fleet of autonomous vessels name RoBoat. The partners hope this autonomous network will fill the canals and waterways of Amsterdam with a modular vessel that can be outfitted for household waste removal, logistics movement and ferry operations, all based on the same hull design. This design uses a LIDAR sensor pod and an HD camera to plot a safe route through the city, and it can be seen in testing in Amsterdam. The development of RoBoat is a potentially profitable green venture, as other cities, including Copenhagen, Paris, and Tokyo have expressed interest in the modular USV.


Meanwhile, L3Harris’ autonomous vessel team has taken on the challenge of differentiating among the many kinds of vessels on the water, which all have their own right-of-way status under COLREGS. Using sensor data, the USV can determine which type of vessel it is interacting with and perform accordingly. The system factors in other vessel types and their current path in order to predict which way the vessel will move.



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.


References and Resources also include:















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:





About Rajesh Uppal

Check Also

3D Printing Emerges as Key Fabrication Technology for Soft Robotics

Introduction: In recent years, the field of soft robotics has experienced remarkable growth, thanks to …

error: Content is protected !!