Pathway to Autonomy

Most technology needed to commercialize autonomous shipping has already been developed. But several challenges need to be overcome before a full commercial rollout occurs.

Courtesy Yara / Massterly

Published Sep 2, 2022 9:16 PM by Mark Venables

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2022 edition.)

When it comes to autonomous shipping, grandiose visions of fully unmanned vessels sailing the world's oceans and ports are often painted. However, the truth is there are still a host of hurdles to be jumped before we can reach that utopian vision.

According to a recent report from Wärtsilä, these include the lack of compelling business cases, an agreed regulatory framework and uncertainty over whether fully unmanned vessels are even desirable. 

That raises a very pertinent point, which is the definition of “autonomous.” There’s a great deal of confusion surrounding the meaning of autonomous operation, often confused with unmanned operation. Much like autonomous cars, there’s a spectrum of solutions ranging from decision support at one end to fully unmanned vessels at the other – with various degrees of automation in between. 

Developing Effective Regulations

Last year the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee finalized its analysis of ship safety treaties to assess the next steps for regulating Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The completion of the scoping exercise represents an all-important first step, paving the way for focused discussions to ensure that regulation will keep pace with technological developments.

Varying degrees of autonomy were considered: crewed ship with automated processes and decision support (Degree One); a remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board (Degree Two); a remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board (Degree Three), and fully autonomous ship (Degree Four).  

The outcome highlights several high-priority issues, cutting across a number of instruments that need to be addressed at a policy level to determine future work. These involve the development of MASS terminology and definitions, including an internationally agreed definition of MASS, and clarifying the meaning of the terms “master,” “crew” and “responsible person,” particularly in Degrees Three and Four.

Lloyd's Register (LR) is already involved in various related projects, most notably developing an oceangoing autonomous navigation system for the 2016-built Themis, an 8,000-car, Mitsui-operated vehicle carrier, in collaboration with Mitsui & Co, Singapore-based engineering group ST Engineering Electronics and the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore. The objective is to develop a fully autonomous decision-making navigation system that, although capable of operating independently, will ultimately be used by the ship's navigators as a decision support system.

"Assuring the quality and safety of an asset and complex operating systems that haven’t existed before is an unprecedented challenge," says LR’s Tony Boylen, Principal Specialist, Assurance of Autonomy. "In the first instance, it’s not even about assuring the asset. It’s about assuring the actual assurance process.”

Boylen believes that projects involving different levels of autonomy must be broken down into segments for the assurance process, ultimately enabling an entire project to be viewed holistically and assured as one complete system.

"For oceangoing ships, our top priority is decarbonization,” he states, “but I believe a symbiotic way forward is the advance of autonomy. I think this will greatly impact the environment more than most people think. You put decarbonization and autonomy together and you get an exponential increase in benefits." 

One of the challenges in autonomous shipping is that it is software- rather than human-led. "If someone said to you, ‘I give my word that this person can be trusted 99.99 percent to undertake this task,’ you would probably feel confident,” Boylen explains. “However, in a million lines of software code, 99.99 percent means that one hundred lines could be wrong. And that’s not good enough.”

The Need

Shipping has been and still is the most efficient mode of transport. It’s also one of the most competitive industries in the world. Growing demands on ship performance have seen information, specifically data, become central to evaluating ways to improve route planning and achieve new operational efficiencies.

However, increasingly complex systems expose limitations in the ability of humans to evaluate and process all variables and adjust systems to maximize performance.  

"Autonomous and automated functions can assist seafarers and allow them to concentrate on tasks that require human attention," says Captain Marko Rahikainen, Ecosystem Lead for the Finnish trade group One Sea. "The resulting efficiency gains will help shipping meet its target of reducing CO2 emissions. Autonomous ship technologies can also support safer operations: Being a seafarer demands patience, skill and high levels of concentration, but the reality is that some tasks, such as lookout, can be very tedious on the open sea and there’s a risk that attention levels can vary. In addition, there’s a limit to human vigilance – we all get tired. Clearly, when functions are automated, performance and attention remain consistent: Automating tasks in certain circumstances or conditions can support seafarers, reduce accidents and improve operational efficiency.” 

He adds that the maritime profession is less alluring than ever for young talent: “Since the opportunities to see the world have not diminished and working conditions at sea are – in general – improving, there must be other reasons why fewer candidates are choosing the seafaring life over other available options. One consideration is the need for maritime industries to keep pace with other sectors in their investment in new technologies and ways of working. Failure to do so limits opportunities and the professional development that align with the skills the younger generation possesses.”


The pursuit of autonomous operations is already leading to more intelligent systems that can enhance the safety, cost?efficiency and environmental performance of today's vessels. In practice, this means reducing collisions or incidents, especially in busy ports, assisting with docking, saving fuel through optimized speed profiles, reducing associated emissions and optimizing crew numbers. 

However, there are several concerns regarding increasing automation and, ultimately, autonomy. First, technology is often stigmatized as a potential source of job losses. In the case of autonomous ship technology, the onus is on suppliers to be transparent about how new technologies will be implemented and the job opportunities such technologies enable. 

Another concern is oversight. "Regulators understand that new technologies will be pivotal in achieving the environmental and energy efficiency expectations they seek,” Rahikainen explains, “but there are concerns about the consequences for the oversight and rights of port and coastal States. Such concerns must be addressed, and pragmatic solutions must be found. To me, the role of automated technology in maritime transport will inevitably expand over time, and prolonging the regulatory process is in no one's interest."

From Pilot to Commercialization

Several successful projects have been reported recently where ships with varying degrees of automation have entered into operation, such as the Yara Birkeland and Zhi Fei.

Chinese officials say they’ve put the world's first autonomous, electric container feeder ship into commercial service after extensive trials. The vessel, named Zhi Fei (Chinese for “Flying Wisdom”) commenced operations on April 22. She’s reported to be approximately 8,000 dwt with a capacity of 300 TEUs, 384 feet long with a beam of 57 feet and draft of roughly 32 feet. Propulsion is reported to be a DC electric system that gives the vessel a top speed of approximately 12 knots and a standard operating speed of eight knots. Qingdao Shipyard built the Zhi Fei.

DB Schenker plans to operate a zero-emission autonomous coastal container feeder for furniture maker Ekornes in Norway. The autonomous, electric, short-sea container feeder leverages Naval Dynamics' NDS AutoBarge 250 concept that was developed in partnership with Kongsberg and Massterly (a joint venture between Kongsberg and Wilhelmsen). The vessel will operate between Ekornes' port, Ikornnes, and the port of Ålesund, which serves the main ocean freight ports in Europe.

The vessel will complete the 43-kilometer journey within three hours at a speed of 7.7 knots. She’ll be 50 meters long and able to carry 300 deadweight tons of cargo. Designed from the keel up for autonomous and zero-emission operation, the vessel will run without a crew but will be monitored and controlled by Massterly's Remote Operation Center (ROC) staff, whose team members include certified navigators and naval engineers.

The planned two-way data communication solution between the vessel and the ROC will be another game-changer in the ocean freight sector. "This unique project marks another important step toward greener supply chains and fits perfectly with our overall sustainability agenda in ocean freight, where we are ambitiously taking the lead with our cooperation partners," says Knut Eriksmoen, CEO Norway, DB Schenker.

Also in Norway, the Yara Birkeland, described as the world's first self-propelled electric container ship, made its maiden voyage late in 2021. The vessel will eliminate 1,000 tons of CO2 and replace 40,000 trips by diesel-powered trucks a year. It’s midway through a two-year testing period of the technology that will lead to certification as an autonomous, all-electric container ship. Kongsberg is responsible for developing and delivering all newly developed technology on the ship, which will be operated from Massterly’s monitoring and operations center in Horten.  

Pathway to Autonomy

 There are high expectations for finalizing the IMO non-mandatory MASS Code by 2025. This will hopefully enable the gradual deployment of supportive systems on crewed vessels and further develop the integration of onboard systems.  

The plan for the non-mandatory code to be made mandatory by 2028 will genuinely open the possibilities for deploying autonomous and automated maritime transport technologies. "I believe that the resulting new ways of working in the maritime profession will bring prosperity and wellbeing and attract more people to this fundamental link in the transport chain," Rahikainen concludes. “Autonomous technologies represent an exciting and innovative part of the shipping industry and offer the realizable potential to improve the efficiency of operations, enhance safety, reduce emissions and renew the appeal of a maritime career." 

Technology writer Mark Venables is based in London.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.