Smart Sails

Autonomous cars are already being tested on the streets and it looks like crewless ships will follow in the water. Rolls-Royce, which is working on autonomous technology in the maritime sector, envisages a remotely-operated local vessel being in operation by 2020 and a remotely-operated autonomous vessel in international waters by 2025. Fully autonomous unmanned ocean-going ships could be around by 2035, it says. In Japan, shipping companies are working with shipbuilders to develop self-piloting cargo ships, which could also be in service by 2025. In the Baltic Sea, the One Sea ecosystem project, founded in 2016, is aiming to enable fully remote-controlled vessels in three years and to achieve autonomous commercial maritime traffic by 2025.

Meanwhile, on a smaller size scale, one of the most ambitious timelines involves an effort by Automated Ships and Kongsberg Maritime to build Hronn, the first unmanned and fully automated offshore supply vessel, and have it on the water in 2018. Clearly, the technology behind such vessels is developing rapidly, including advances that will allow ships to be controlled remotely or operate autonomously. This could enable ships to monitor their own health and the environment around them, potentially making decisions based on that information.

Indeed, the potential use of automation goes well beyond the vessels themselves, stretching the entire length of the cargo movement chain.  “Autonomous technology has the potential to revolutionize the movement of cargo on a scale not seen since containerization was introduced some 50 years ago,” says Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS.

Autonomous benefits

There are many potential benefits to be gained from autonomous shipping. Human error often plays a major role in incidents at sea. It is estimated that 75-96 percent of marine accidents can be attributed to human error.

In addition, AGCS analysis of almost 15,000 marine liability insurance claims shows that human error is behind 75 percent of the value of all claims analyzed, equivalent to $1.6 billion. Given the role of human error in maritime incidents it is assumed unmanned vessels could be safer. At the same time the risks inherent in having a crew, such as injury or loss of life, will be significantly reduced or even eliminated.

Then there is the potential to improve both efficiencies and productivity by saving on crew and fuel costs. The current shipping market, affected by a global downturn, faces various challenges. Crew costs can vary from around 10-30 percent of ship-owners operating expenditure (OPEX), depending on the type of vessel. An unmanned ship could free up more space for cargo in place of accommodation and crew support systems.

The introduction of designated automated shipping lanes could make logistics easier, increasing the reliability of cargo transport. It has even been suggested that automation could result in a decline in piracy incidents as there is no crew to be used as leverage for ransom. However, the piracy threat is ever-evolving and there is already evidence that pirates have been abusing holes in cyber security to target specific cargoes, so the cyber security threat could actually increase in future.

Autonomous shipping is likely to be phased in over time, as there are many legal and regulatory issues that need to be resolved. For example, maritime law and conventions were not drafted with crewless ships in mind and currently require vessels to have crew and a master on board. The International Maritime Organization said recently it would start exploring how existing international regulation could be applied to autonomous ships.

“Yet despite unknowns and regulatory issues, autonomous shipping will happen. It’s just a question of when and how. And it is possible that the current economic pressures on the shipping industry and the need to find efficiencies, could even support and speed up developments in maritime automation,” says Kinsey.

Safety considerations will be key to the development of automation. A challenge for designers is to convince users, stakeholders, regulators and insurers that such systems are 100 percent reliable. In future, flawless communication between autonomous ships at sea and the so-called Shore Control Center (SCC), from where the vessels will be controlled, will obviously be crucial. Although autonomous operation presents a number of risk “unknowns” the maritime industry does have experience in this area. In some cases, unmanned vessels are not new, having been used for many years in scientific research operations and the defense sector, although these have involved much smaller vessels than what is proposed in future. “The issue of autonomous vessel operation has also been dealt with before onboard ships, when we first started with unattended engine room operations,” Kinsey adds. “In that case, the vessels were operated in a manned state and engine room alarms were logged and analyzed.”

Yet the list of risk factors under consideration remains a long one. For example, only large vessels routinely have tracking devices today, raising questions about the potential for collisions between an automated ship and smaller vessels. Another challenge will be assessing the risk of an environmental disaster. Without a crew, a disaster-containment response team may be hundreds of miles away.

Then there are potential issues around cargo management and safety in the absence of crew; fire protection; stability, draft and hull integrity and security; and cyber risk - which many believe will increase. For example, if an incident occurs on an unmanned vessel, such as a spoofed GPS signal, how long will it take to discover what is happening? The cyber security platform has to become more robust given the large amounts of data transmitted – especially for unmanned ships.

“Fully automated shipping may be possible from a technical perspective, but on a global scale it may not happen given the navigational challenges of entering ports and congested routes, as well as the challenges of operating in storm conditions. It is hard to see how vessels can operate without crews to deal with emergency situations,” says Chris Turberville, Head of Marine Hull & Liabilities, UK, AGCS.

It could be that automated, or ships controlled from the shore, will operate on local coastal routes. But for more complex transits, the journey towards automation is likely to follow the model of the aviation industry, Turberville believes. Aircraft have gradually adopted automation, but pilots still play an important role on-board, taking control during an emergency or at certain points, such as take-off and landing. “It has yet to be seen whether the decision-making ability of computers matches that of humans. And I am not yet convinced that the technology is there to navigate difficult conditions, like the Suez Canal or the English Channel,” adds Captain Rahul Khanna, Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS. “Autonomous technology has the potential to improve safety but a critical element will be whether there will be sufficient backup when things go wrong. “There is talk of autonomous shipping within the next five years, but it will probably take longer for the regulatory framework to catch-up. And while autonomous ships could soon operate on simplistic and fixed regional routes, autonomous shipping on a larger scale will take time.”

                                                                                                          - Greg Dobie


  • Remotely operated local vessel 2020
  • Remote controlled unmanned coastal vessel 2025
  • Remote controlled unmanned ocean-going ship 2030
  • Autonomous unmanned ocean-going ship 2035

Why? Potential benefits

  • Increase productivity, make logistics easier and enhance safety
  • Human error is the leading cause of maritime incidents. Automation should be safer
  • Increase efficiencies – savings on crew and fuel costs. Free up space to store additional cargo
  • Better accessibility of remote, potentially dangerous areas
  • Automated shipping lanes could increase reliability of cargo transport
  • Decline in piracy incidents. No crew to be used as ransom leverage

Challenges and risks

  • Regulatory framework could prove more challenging than developing the technology
  • Significant international cooperation needed
  • Safety considerations – potential issues around collisions between manned and unmanned vessels
    Human intervention also averts incidents.
  • Emergencies and environmental issues could pose threats
  • Cargo management and safety challenges without crew support
  • Fire management without crew support
  • Cyber risk to increase

Impact for insurance

  • Sophisticated technology in unmanned vessel hulls could result in higher insured values initially
  • Crew claims for loss of life or personal injury at sea significantly reduced
  • Potential increase in product liability issues

Technology will have an increasingly important role in improving safety and performance in the maritime sector in coming years. Autonomous vessels are likely to prove safer than today’s vessels, but widespread use in merchant shipping is probably decades away with initial take-up predicted to focus on smaller ships engaged in near-coastal voyages, including small island ferries, tugboats, barges and supply and service vessels.

In the meantime, safety-enhancing technology is already impacting shipping – from electronic navigational tools through to shore-based monitoring of machinery and even crew welfare. “Technology could bring huge advantages for the maritime sector, catching issues early and before they escalate into a major casualty,” says Turberville. “It offers the potential to reduce human error as well as reduce machinery breakdown.”

For example, telematics are already successfully deployed in the automotive sector, improving driver behavior. The shipping sector could also benefit. AGCS is in the early stages of working with shipowners to utilize Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) analysis to improve safety. By analyzing VDR output it is possible to identify and influence the behaviors that drive risk. Information from VDRs is already being used in accident investigation, but important lessons can also be learned by analyzing every day operations, with the insights being fed back into training. Eventually, VDR analysis could become standard practice, informing risk management decisions and potentially reflected in insurance premiums.

This article is a reproduction of a story published in AGCS Global Risk Dialogue, a magazine by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty with news and expert insights from the world of corporate risk.

As with all content published on this site, these statements are subject to our Forward Looking Statement disclaimer:


Heidi Polke
Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty
Phone: +49 89 3800 14303

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