How AI is taking hold in the shipping industry

March 13, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping the shipping industry to become increasingly dynamic. Technology that was developed for autonomous cars and drones is now making headway in shipping, supported by a number of leading maritime nations and creating opportunities throughout the industry. 

In Norway, the Yara Birkeland, a fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions will initially operate as a manned vessel, moving to remote operation in 2019 and is expected to be capable of performing fully autonomous operations from 2020. The Netherlands and Belgium have announced that they are launching this summer, zero-emissions, autonomous container barges that will transport 24 containers weighing up to 425 tonnes from ports in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam, and in the UK, the ship register has already registered its first unmanned ship, in late 2017.

With a view to ensuring that the UK takes a leading role in the development and implementation of autonomous shipping, last month, the UK Department for Transport hosted a Maritime Autonomy Futures Lab at our London office.  The event was facilitated by the Cabinet Office’s Policy Lab and involved attendees from various stakeholders in the shipping industry. Regulators, shipowners, insurers, port operators and others joined to discuss how the UK can support the update, development and use of AI technology, to maximise the benefits to the industry.

There is a lot of focus and press reporting on the prospect of fully autonomous unmanned ships in the future.  However, the industry clearly recognises that there are a number of key issues that will need to be overcome before that can be a reality – both legal issues such as regulation, liability and insurance, and practical issues, such as maintenance of unmanned ships, interaction of unmanned ships with manned ships and cyber security.  Nonetheless, the progress to fully automated ships is likely to come in more manageable incremental stages as the technology is developed and, crucially, rigorously tested.

The International Maritime Organisation is looking at international regulation, but this will take time and there is still a risk that different jurisdictions will take different approaches to the implementation of regulations.  A significant first step would be to put in place enabling regulations on a more domestic level.  Expanding testing zones around UK waters so that the areas and interactions with other ships are substantial enough to enable useful trials, would facilitate technological developments.

A flagship project is needed to underline the UK’s role in the sector and the possibilities– the government is now looking at ways to support this. 

The ships that are being launched, whether unmanned or remotely operated, show that there is a commercial demand in some sectors for this technology.  There is much to be done at the technology level but also the legal and regulatory level to allow the technology to develop.

Read more on autonomous shipping.