Towards autonomous shipping: social acceptance and regulatory hurdles

Towards autonomous shipping: social acceptance and regulatory hurdles
ABB’s Bridge Zero’ concept could provide watch-keepers with further support for autonomous shipping. Image courtesy of ABB.

The maritime industry’s progress towards autonomous shipping will largely depend on social acceptance and regulatory developments, says ABB Marine and Ports’ Capt. Eero Lehtovaara. In a discussion on shipping’s automation, Inmarsat, One Sea and ClassNK weigh in on what autonomous shipping means for the maritime industry.

Humans in the loop  

Capt. Eero Lehtovaara, head of regulatory affairs, ABB Marine and Ports says that when it comes to automating shipping, one big question is the role of the human and the willingness to integrate new solutions and trial new ways of working. During an online press event held on June 30, he said that, “Most part of technology is available, but we need to figure out the social license to operate these technologies and that also means the regulatory side.

“We will always have humans in the loop,” he said. “The key drivers of autonomous operations won’t remove people from the ship,” he said.

He sees technology coming onboard to help with decision support and this will change the way the industry works.  One scenario he noted was if a were ship sailing in the open sea with nothing in the near vicinity, then it might be possible for the crew to work regular office hours. “The work patterns could change, there could be somewhat more social norms of work, but all supporting technology will be tested and see how it matures and see if there’s a will for that.”

One thing ABB and other solution providers will be keeping an eye on is how the markets develop. For ABB, the demand from customers is essential to ensure they have buyers for their technology.

“If they’re not buying it it doesn’t make sense for us to produce it,” he said.

There are also additional safety concerns when it comes to autonomous shipping operations, which Capt. Lehtovaara said could cause hesitation in uptake. “There needs to be the social acceptance to use the technology,” he said.

“Externally and internally, we hear that the ships, technologies, and systems need to be as safe as conventional ships are. This also means that we have the liability aspect.”

He noted that there are still a large number of unanswered questions, and these need to be pursued gradually. “It is not possible to jump from the stone age and go the moon.

“The regulatory bodies want to see safety within this discussion so when they regulate something it will be accepted as a norm by the industry.”

He sees the market developing gradually, with the same technology being used but a change in the way we connect them and rely on them for decision making. “It’s how we apply them that’s important,” he said.

Four degrees of automation

Inmarsat’s Marco Cristoforo Camporeale, head of maritime digital, explained the four degrees of shipping’s journey to autonomous operations.

In the first degree, ships will benefit from automated processes and decision support, but the crew will remain in full control of the vessel. The idea is to digitalise and improve operational efficiency, comply with regulations and support crew welfare.

In the first degree, “Connectivity required for automation and decision support tools is already what we are living today, and there is an ecosystem of providers to provide IOT platforms to enable big exchanges of data,” explained Mr Camporeale.

According to Mr Camporeale, Maersk Line’s fleet of 275 owned and managed vessels, there are more than 2,800 sensors onboard and almost 30TB of data per month downloaded. This equates to 110GB per vessel per month. By deploying these automated processes, Maersk saves more than US $20 million in fuel costs across the entire fleet.

The second degree of automation sees remotely controlled ships but with seafarers still onboard. “We start to see what is possible and make assumptions,” Mr Camporeale confirmed. Connectivity is important with availability, latency and capacity increased with redundancy and multiple systems in place. Manual control of the ship as it nears shore or in the event of an emergency would be possible.

“There is also more dedicated bandwidth for specific applications. We have to make sure vital systems get the connectivity they require and don’t have to fight for it.

“Seafarers will have more time to do more things than just follow up on operations thanks to connectivity,” said Mr Camporeale.

“Degree three is a bit more of a challenge as it refers to a remote controlled ship without seafarers onboard,” he said. “This means that loss of connectivity is not acceptable as there is nobody onboard to take over the ship.”

At the third degree, latency and capacity are important but also become a challenge. “We need to have a near real-time control of the ship when getting close to port or shores. Livestreaming for multiple cameras to avoid compromising control will be essential.”

At the fourth degree, ships become fully autonomous. “Instead of people onboard, we have autonomous navigation systems,” he said. Connectivity will still be important as autonomous ships should be able to take themselves into a safe situation during an emergency.

Mr Camporeale went onto explain that fully autonomous systems onboard ships might be similar to what we see today in other industries. It would mean that when a vessel gets close to shore, the autonomous system hands over to a remote-control station and then the higher capacity and lower latency of LT wireless systems come into play.

Classification and regulation

Giving an overview on the classification and regulation of autonomous shipping, Mr Tomoaki Yamada, manager of research institute at ClassNK talked about the classification society’s guidelines for implementing autonomous shipping operations.

The guidelines which were issued in January 2020 include overall common basic requirements and procedures from the viewpoint of safety verification at each life-cycle stage.

Recently, ClassNK granted an approval in principle (AiP) to NYK Line and MTI for their joint project on the concept design of an autonomous ship framework.

Part of awarding this AiP was based on the Action, Planning, and Execution System (APExS) framework.

APExS ensures a safe procedure is followed. It includes a range of basic safety elements such as defining the task of automated operation systems (AOS) including prevention of collisions and groundings, and classifying the roles of humans and computer systems. With situational awareness, the computer system plans the decision, the decision is then approved by the human and if approved, the computer can take action.

Read more about APExS here.

Mr Yamada said the ClassNK’s next contribution to the maritime industry involves establishing evaluation methods, tools and criteria that take into account the knowledge gained in demonstration projects.

In order to confirm the validity and integrity of automated operation systems (AOS), the class society will utilise simulation methods to simulate different situations.

The autonomous maritime ecosystem

Autonomous maritime ecosystem One Sea has an ambitious plan to make autonomous commercial maritime applications happen by 2025.

Jukka Merenluoto, senior ecosystem lead at One Sea explained that the One Sea’s Sea4Value roadmap is helping to improve safe navigation for existing vessels, while laying the ground for future autonomous vessels.

The Sea4Value roadmap includes three key domains: smart ports, smart shipping, and smart fairway navigation.

Mr Merenluoto said in the future the decision-making environments will be shifted in locations due to remote operations. The fairway navigation, which there are numerous ongoing projects for, seeks to find answers to a number of questions, including:

  • What are the future themes that will ensure safe navigation?
  • How can we build necessary situational awareness to enable assisted navigation?
  • Which part of the intelligence should be built on fairway and surrounding infrastructure?
  • What are the changes to be done in fairways and existing navigational and communications within short and medium term?

The program aims to be transformative, providing research-based guidance on data usage and sharing. The program targets demonstrations and experiments that are important milestones in the journey of smart and autonomous maritime transport.

Autonomous maritime ecosystem One Sea plans to make autonomous commercial maritime applications happen by 2025. Image courtesy of One Sea.


The global coronavirus pandemic has caused many industries to slow down but for shipping it has in some part accelerated the adopted of digital solutions.

Capt. Lehtovaara said that the pandemic may result in a, “rise in digitalisation with a different curve than we anticipated.”

“When and how that will happen is another question,” he said. However, he expects intelligent systems, electrification, and connectivity on ships to come back stronger than before Covid-19.

Mr Camporeale said that he sees enhanced interest in data and ship performance following the outbreak. “The demand for platforms to extract data out of vessels is exploding. Enabling remote support from shore to seafarers onboard the ship has grown a lot, and development overall is being pushed at a higher speed.”