BHP Billiton Joins the Push for Autonomous Vessels

Conceptual autonomous ship (illustration courtesy Rolls-Royce)

Published Jun 7, 2017 7:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Mining company BHP Billiton has thrown its considerable weight behind the concept of autonomous vessels. The firm ships 250 million tonnes of ore on 1,500 voyages per year, making it among the largest dry bulk charters in the world, and it believes that it could significantly improve the bottom line by switching to self-navigating ships. It is easily the largest charterer to date to endorse the concept of vessel autonomy.

"Safe and efficient autonomous vessels carrying BHP cargo, powered by BHP gas, is our vision for the future of dry bulk shipping. We believe that future could manifest within a decade," says vice president of freight Rashpal Bhatti.

The move would mirror BHP's increasingly automated operations on land. The firm already works with driverless trucks at its mines in Australia, reducing overhead and removing human drivers from a potentially hazardous environment. (Competitor Rio Tinto was an early and enthusiastic adopter of these self-driving trucks, and it is also adopting self-driving trains and drilling rigs.) These innovations save labor costs, but they also reduce uncertainty: with increasingly automated operations, miners have fewer concerns about future labor availability and wage levels for their shoreside operations.

Charterers can vote with their contracts

In a keynote address at the Nor-Shipping 2017 conference last week, Bhatti also emphasized shipping's role in reducing CO2 emissions; the promise of new data analytics tools to benchmark vessel performance and facilitate cost-effective chartering decisions; and most of all, the importance of ship operator vetting to improve safety standards. "Due to our size, the decisions BHP makes around the vessels we choose to charter are important symbols for motivating change," he says. 

Recalling the Stellar Daisy disaster, Bhatti placed special emphasis on safety: he says that his firm’s goal is to bring dry bulk's standards up to and beyond the benchmark set by the tanker industry. To push operators to improve, the firm only allows shipowners with top environmental and safety records to participate in its eAuction online chartering platform: low day rates are no longer enough.